An Eye for an Eye
MADRID — Back in 1976, a Chilean hit squad assassinated former Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and an American colleague in Washington. Letelier was one of the most prominent opponents of the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
A rough equivalent today would be China orchestrating the elimination in the United States of a prominent Uighur opponent, or the Russians assassinating a leading Chechen on a Georgetown street.
Needless to say, the U.S. government would be outraged at such extrajudicial executions on American soil. We don’t want to live in a world where nations blow up enemies, or smother them with pillows, in other countries with which they’re not at war.
But nor, of course, can we do less than everything possible to avert another 9/11, and that’s where things get murky.
So let’s make a few things clear. Since 9/11, with greater intensity under the Obama administration, the United States has wordlessly lifted the ban in effect since the Ford administration on targeted killings by U.S. intelligence officers. Such killings are now taking place almost daily under a C.I.A.-directed covert program. Drones firing Hellfire missiles have eliminated several Al Qaeda leaders.
The drone strikes are concentrated on Pakistan, with which America is not at war. The Obama administration has declined to say anything about this doctrine of targeted killing. It’s not clear how you get on a list to be eliminated; who makes that call; whether the decision is based on past acts (revenge, say, for the killing of C.I.A. agents in Khost, Afghanistan) or only on corroborated intelligence demonstrating that the target is planning a terrorist attack; what, if any, the battlefield limits are; and what, if any, is the basis in law.
The closest I can find to an official accounting of the drone program was from Senator John Kerry last October: “I am convinced that it is highly circumscribed now, very carefully controlled within a hierarchy of decision-making, significantly limited in its collateral damage, and profoundly successful in the impact it has had in putting Al Qaeda on the run. It is why we can now say that perhaps 14 of the top 20 Al Qaeda leaders have been eliminated.”
That success is significant, even if “on the run” is hyperbole. But the “collateral damage” is also substantial and has a cascade terrorist-recruitment effect. On balance, President Obama, who campaigned against the “dark side” of the war on terror and has insisted that America must lead by example as a nation of laws, owes Americans an accounting of his targeted killing program.
Revenge killings don’t pass the test for me. They’re unacceptable under international law. I want to know that any target is selected because there is verifiable intelligence that he’s actively planning a terrorist attack on the United States or its allies; that the danger is pressing; that arrest is impossible; and that civilian lives are not wantonly risked.
The bar of pre-emptive self-defense is then passed. A pinpoint strike is better than the Afghan or Iraqi scenarios. But that bar must be high. America departs at its peril from its principles.
I know, terrorists have no rule book, no borders and no compunction. The global war on terror (GWOT) is untidy. Still, the current accountability void for U.S. targeted killing is unacceptable.
America is treading a familiar path. Israel pioneered the use of unmanned drones to kill Hamas operatives. Gerald Steinberg wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal that “U.S. forces have copied Israel’s technique with their own drone killings of jihadi terrorists.” But, of course, the United States is not Israel. It’s not a small nation, surrounded by more numerous enemies, at war since its foundation against foes bent on its destruction. It’s not consumed by the specter of nonexistence.
Vicky Divoll, a former C.I.A. lawyer, told The Los Angeles Times: “At one time, the United States did not kill in the shadows — until we became as afraid for our lives as the Israelis have been for decades.” That’s right — and unacceptable. Fear cannot be a global license for the United States of America to kill.
My doubt level that the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, was behind the murder in Dubai last month of the senior Hamas operative, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, is about that of the Dubai police chief who said he was “99 percent, if not 100 percent” certain that Israel was responsible. An eye for an eye: al-Mabhouh was the murderer of two Israeli soldiers, as well as a shipper of arms to Hamas. I won’t shed a tear.
But what a messy trail: all that video, European passports belonging to Israelis whose lives are now at risk, diplomatic fallout. So what, argues Steinberg, who teaches political science at Bar Ilan University, al-Mabhouh was “probably making arrangements for the next round of attacks.”
Note the “probably:” That’s insufficient grounds for extrajudicial execution. Israel, too, must at a minimum have specific intelligence that a target is planning an imminent terrorist attack. Revenge is a blind alley.
And America must lead by its own — not a far more vulnerable ally’s — example or it will end up eyeless in GWOT.