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Assassinating foreign leaders: Okay!
April 9, 2003 4:06 AM   Subscribe

Is trying to assassinate a foreign leader illegal? Executive Order 12333, signed by President Reagan, says "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination," which confirmed and expanded the bans on assassination laid down by his two prior presidential predecessors. So why is the US government targeting Saddam Hussein and his sons? Has the executive order been secretly (and legitimately) revoked? Should it be? Does it even need to be revoked, even if just for appearance's sake? Has ignoring or revoking it been part of the plan all along? Does the Fourth Convention of the Hague really forbid assassination as well?
posted by Mo Nickels (49 comments total)

 
Was Saddam Hussein considered a 'foreign leader'?
posted by mischief at 4:13 AM on April 9, 2003


Is the targeting of a civilian target - a restaurant - legal under the Geneva Conventions?
posted by brettski at 4:24 AM on April 9, 2003


I very much doubt hes considered a domestic leader.

Isn't redefining 'leader' so that you can get around existing laws morally dubious?

What is the definition of leader? Democratically elected? Pro-US?
posted by couch at 4:25 AM on April 9, 2003


Was Saddam Hussein considered a 'foreign leader'?

Well, he is a leader. And he is foreign.
posted by armoured-ant at 4:26 AM on April 9, 2003


I believe the order was revoked, and not secretly, some time after 9/11.
posted by drinkcoffee at 4:27 AM on April 9, 2003


Saddam Hussein is commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces, and so legit to be hit. Where did I read about this recently?
posted by hairyeyeball at 4:34 AM on April 9, 2003


This being war and all (or do you actually have to 'declare' war any more? I'm not certain on the niceties of all this) does that mean that Mr Bush is equally 'legit to be hit,' then, by Iraqis?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:37 AM on April 9, 2003


The policy against assassination has never been understood to apply to military leadership in time of war. (And if the military leadership is in a restaurant, it is not a "civilian target" by the laws of war; in fact, taking refuge there is arguably itself a "human shield" war crime.)

The assassination executive order has not been modifed. An interpretation from the Justice Department under Clinton permitted targeting Bin Laden, as he is not part of any legitimate government, and this policy has continued under Bush.
posted by dhartung at 4:39 AM on April 9, 2003


How about indiscriminately taking out civilians while attempting the assassination of a foreign leader? Is that illegal? Just plain wrong?
posted by Summer at 4:45 AM on April 9, 2003


Shame he went to Northern Ireland... down in EIRE it's legal to kill someone for political reasons (I believe).

I thought there was a rider on the 'we won't assasinate people' ruling that said it was null and void during a war. But then is this a war? Or a 'liberation'?

Who was it who said they hoped the US killed Sadam, because if the American's capture him they'll make the biggest hash of a trial known to man kind. Ignoring Camp X-Ray for a moment...
posted by twine42 at 4:52 AM on April 9, 2003


Erm, has there been a congressional Declaration of War passed in the US? I think it seems to have been mislaid in all this rush.. Without it, are they officially at war? The lack of a set of delibrate, official reasoning/objectives confuses me (it switches every so often - clear and present danger -> 5 years time -> liberation..). Its not like they didn't have time to come up with a declaration..

Bin Laden isn't a foreign leader dhartung..

I think their specific singling out of Saddam goes against it, but who's gonna stop them?
posted by Mossy at 5:04 AM on April 9, 2003


Interesting point. If he was captured by the British forces, we couldn't hand him over to the US forces, as he could be executed.

If I was him, I'd be heading South under a bloody big white flag right about now.
posted by couch at 5:05 AM on April 9, 2003


I'll freely admit I am totally bewildered by this concept of "international law" or "the laws of war". Is this law written down somewhere? Can the Geneva Convention be overridden by the internal laws of the countries that sign up to it? It would seem to me that the most clear and obvious facet of this law is the will of the UN Security Council as outlined in the Charter, which in this case is being ignored, seemingly making everything thereafter illegal.

The truth is that International Law is a concept which the USA only takes account of when it suits them - as illustrated by their reluctance to join the International Criminal Court. This will continue to be the case until we have a viable international police force, enforcing laws clearly outlined by the UN or similar organisation - and I cannot see that happening any time soon.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 5:07 AM on April 9, 2003


"Can the Geneva Convention be overridden by the internal laws of the countries that sign up to it? "

As far as international conventions go, I think the point of joining is that the signataries promise to uphold the principles contained in them collectively and individually. IOW, by signing, heads of state are saying that they will enforce them locally (i.e. domestically) as well as globally.

Which is why Bush signs few and "unsigned" at least one.
posted by magullo at 5:27 AM on April 9, 2003


[Threadjack]

COUCH!!! Dude!!! Long time no see.

[/Threadjack]
posted by fullerine at 5:42 AM on April 9, 2003


Well, he is a leader

says who? has he really _shown leadership_?

did he ever win the prestigious George Bush Leadership Award ?

Did Saddam ever pass the George Bush Leadership test?

I doubt it!
posted by matteo at 5:50 AM on April 9, 2003


if the military leadership is in a restaurant, it is not a "civilian target" by the laws of war; in fact, taking refuge there is arguably itself a "human shield" war crime.)

Does this make any place the US Commander In Chief is at a military target - I assume he shouldn't be surrounding himself with civilians either?

Personally, I hope they get Saddam, but not at the expense of who ever is unfortunate enough to be in the same street as him at the time..
posted by brettski at 5:51 AM on April 9, 2003


We never should have gone into Iraq. I, for one, was quite content with what Saddam and his cronies were doing.
posted by a3matrix at 5:55 AM on April 9, 2003


Bush: "This war has been a great success. I really think we're now equipped to deal with Vietnam."

/notreal
posted by Pretty_Generic at 5:57 AM on April 9, 2003


Erm, has there been a congressional Declaration of War passed in the US? I think it seems to have been mislaid in all this rush.. Without it, are they officially at war?
Just thinking about this, is it 40 days a President can declare war, then it has to be approved by Congress to continue?

Does this make any place the US Commander In Chief is at a military target - I assume he shouldn't be surrounding himself with civilians either?
The White House & Camp David, that's federal property so what would that be considered during a war.
posted by thomcatspike at 6:10 AM on April 9, 2003


I believe the logic goes like this: He wears a uniform. He controls the troops. He's a de-facto general. Generals are legitimate targets.

And since we can't seem to achieve our ends through peaceful diplomatic methods, I'd prefer we spent our time murdering world leaders, rather than the civilians who are trapped between armies.
posted by donpardo at 6:15 AM on April 9, 2003


NOTE: assassination, in the definition accepted by international law DOES NOT just refer to killing someone. A sniper of a missile or a tank are NOT methods of assassination. assassination means that it is duplicities or traitorous. So if Bush invited Saddam for lunch and THEN killed him, THAT's assassination. Dropping a bunker buster on the head of the military is NOT assignation.

Please have some idea what you're talking about before posting. Thanks.
posted by tiamat at 6:23 AM on April 9, 2003


damn spell check. I don't even know what 'assignation' is. I meant assassination.
posted by tiamat at 6:26 AM on April 9, 2003


thankyou tiamat. isn't the word of arabic origin?
posted by dabitch at 6:33 AM on April 9, 2003


This being war and all (or do you actually have to 'declare' war any more? I'm not certain on the niceties of all this) does that mean that Mr Bush is equally 'legit to be hit,' then, by Iraqis?

Maybe, if most Iraqis weren't so busy smashing Saddam's statues and thanking the US.
posted by pardonyou? at 6:37 AM on April 9, 2003


tiamat- Reference? Don't throw around barbs like that without backing it up. AFAIK, there is no definition of assassination that delineates method as opposed to intent.
posted by mkultra at 6:38 AM on April 9, 2003


does that mean that Mr Bush is equally 'legit to be hit,' then, by Iraqis?

According to guy-on-NPR-the-other-night-whose-name-I-forget: yes, he is. He's commander-in-chief, and thus fair game.
posted by jpoulos at 7:06 AM on April 9, 2003


mkultra, try the dictionary.


as•sas•si•nate
Pronunciation: (u-sas'u-nAt"), [key]
—v.t., -nat•ed, -nat•ing.
1. to kill suddenly or secretively, esp. a politically prominent person; murder premeditatedly and treacherously.
2. to destroy or harm treacherously and viciously: to assassinate a person's character.
posted by tiamat at 7:11 AM on April 9, 2003


to assassinate a person's character

that's a great idea: shouldn't the US just assassinate Saddam's character, so we won't even need to discuss executive order 12333?
posted by matteo at 7:17 AM on April 9, 2003


Mossy and thomcatspike: The 107th Congress passed HR 114 last October, authorizing the President to act if and when he saw fit under the War Powers Act. In the interpretation of Sen. Joe Biden, at the time Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a constitutional scholar, the authorization of force resolution is the legal equivalent of a declaration of war. Generally it's agreed that war is a descriptive term applied to the state that exists, i.e. if the enemy attacks you (or vice versa), you're at war. Declarations of war are essentially a mere formality.

Pretty_Generic: The US and all other sovereign nations take heed of international law only when it is their obligation or in their interest (or at least not substantially contrary to their interest). The UN is not a constitutional world body, and thank God for that. I'm not fond of the idea of sharing a legal system with the likes of Syria, Libya or Iraq. At the time that there is a fully global constitutional system, governance by the consent of the governed, and enumerated rights and responsibilities, we will not have international law in the sense that we have laws within nation-states. Until that time, international law will substantially remain a body of practice; and institutions such as the UN will derive authority from participatory behavior.

Probably useful: Terrorism Answers page on Assassination, from the Council on Foreign Relations.
posted by dhartung at 7:25 AM on April 9, 2003


Tiamat, I suggest you try a better dictionary. There's no such thing as "the" dictionary. I think you're wrong about the definition of assassination and here's why:

-- The definition of assassination is not defined by the executive order, which in this case is where it matters. So it's open for interpretation.

-- There is no codified domestic or international legal definition of assassination, although it is generally undersood to mean “murder by surprise for political purposes." I don't think they called ahead before delivering the bunker-busters, do you?

-- The general definition of assassination is broad enough to be defined merely as "killing," if one so wished. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of assassination: "The action of assassinating; the taking the life of any one by treacherous violence, esp. by a hired emissary, or one who has taken upon him to execute the deed. b. fig. Cf. ‘killing.’" The first definition of to assassinate: "1. a. trans. To kill by treacherous violence."

-- The United States government and its employees pick and choose whichever definition is convenient. In some cases, they define assassination as killing done as part of a covert operation. Sometimes it is killing of heads of state only. Executive Order 12333 is probably deliberately oscure.

-- From The Politics of Assassination—A South African Reflects: "In their 1970 work on the issue, The Politics of Assassination, Havens, Leiden and Schmitt have provided us with an initial working definition of assassination which will form the basis of our interpretation: assassination is the deliberate, extralegal killing of an individual for political purposes."

-- Assissination may also be permissible in cases of self-defense. Since we are the agressors in this war, and since the attacks on Saddam's hideouts were not immediate responses to on-the-spot aggression, I think it's safe to say this is not a case of self-defense.

Citations and bibliography for some of the information above:

FindLaw Forum: No law prevents Bush from 'taking out' bin Laden
http://www.cnn.com/2001/LAW/09/columns/fl.dean.war.ce.0930/

A View to a Kill: Assassination in war and peace.
http://www.nationalreview.com/lowry/lowry032103.asp

INTERNATIONAL LAW AND THE USE OF FORCE IN RESPONSE TO THE WORLD TRADE CENTER AND PENTAGON ATTACKS
http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/forum/forumnew34.htm

THE YEMEN ATTACK: ILLEGAL ASSASSINATION OR LAWFUL KILLING?
http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/forum/forumnew68.php

The Politics of Assassination—A South African Reflects
http://www.terrorism.net/Pubs/obrien1.asp

Can We Put the Leaders of the "Axis of Evil" in the Crosshairs?
http://carlisle-www.army.mil/usawc/Parameters/02autumn/pape.pdf

Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990, Ch. 18, An Un-American Way of War
http://www.statecraft.org/chapter18.html
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:28 AM on April 9, 2003


Sorry for the typos. I hope they don't undermine my point.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:30 AM on April 9, 2003


damn spell check. I don't even know what 'assignation' is

2. An appointment of time and place for meeting or interview; -- used chiefly of love interviews, and now commonly in a bad sense.

While nymphs take treats, or assignations give. --Pope.

Sounds better than assassination any day of the week.
posted by TedW at 7:33 AM on April 9, 2003


[threadjack class=continued]

indeed.

I really must keep in touch with old friends more.

I'm sure OL has cached your email somewhere...

[/threadjack]
posted by couch at 7:35 AM on April 9, 2003


I assassinated a spider once. I believe he may have been the leader of an underground spider-resistance movement. Does that make me libel for war-crimes prosecution? Because I can glue him back together if I need to.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:36 AM on April 9, 2003


Miles Hudson's Assassination looks at the history and political effectiveness of assassination.

If you accept the proposition that Saddam Hussein must be eliminated, wouldn't it have been better to have just assassinated him, instead of killing a lot of innocent Iraqis on the way to (possibly) getting to him? I remember discussing Osama bin Ladin with a friend a couple of months before September 11. Bin Laden had attacked US possessions (the embassies in Africa) and declared war against the US, so I wondered why we didn't just find him and kill him. We decided that you just don't do that, but sometimes in retrospect I wish we had.

I don't advocate assassination, and I oppose the US invasion of Iraq, but it's interesting to me that there sometimes seems to be more moral objection to assassination than war. (I'm also disturbed that my emotional reaction to the September 11 attacks sometimes makes me consider harsher viewpoints than I'm comfortable with.)

does that mean that Mr Bush is equally 'legit to be hit,' then, by Iraqis?

Nah, he's too legit to hit.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:40 AM on April 9, 2003


Nah, he's too legit to hit.

Hammer Time?
posted by Stuart_R at 7:57 AM on April 9, 2003


Hammer Time?

Does that mean that the president's given the word?
posted by couch at 8:05 AM on April 9, 2003


dhartung, thanks I hit post then thought wait there was a bill passed on this. Plus that 40days is out dated too if you think back to the times at which it was created during.
posted by thomcatspike at 8:09 AM on April 9, 2003


dabitch: The word certainly originates in Arabic, as this history of the word “assassin” attests. Very fascinating. It was used as a term of disparagement, apparently, by Sunni Muslims against a Syrian sect of Shias, and picked up by the Christian Crusaders. Amazing the amount of history and culture that's crammed into a single word.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 8:12 AM on April 9, 2003


Dropping a bunker buster on the head of the military is NOT assignation...Please have some idea what you're talking about before posting. Thanks.

Hmm...some pot-kettle action going on there, I believe.

Isn't redefining 'leader' so that you can get around existing laws morally dubious?

I don't know, kind of like redefining what a prisoner of war is so you can bypass the Geneva Convention...?
posted by troybob at 8:19 AM on April 9, 2003


Does that mean that the president's given the word?

Word? Word Up? I meant it sounds like he's too legit to quit.

(I meant this kind of Hammer Time)
posted by Stuart_R at 8:37 AM on April 9, 2003


Assassin [Arab.,=user of hashish], European name for the member of a secret order of the Ismaili sect of Islam. They are known as Nizaris after Nizar ibn al-Mustansir, whom they supported as caliph. The members of the order were distinguished by their blind obedience to their spiritual leader and by their use of murder to eliminate foes. The order was founded by Hasan ibn al-Sabbah when he gained control (c.1090) of the mountain fortress of Alamut, located S of the Caspian Sea. The order spread over Persia and Syria, gaining control of many strongholds, and it soon inspired terror throughout the Muslim world. Members were organized into strict classes, according to degree of initiation into the secrets of the order. The most important of the classes were the devotees, who sought martyrdom and were the instruments of assassination. Hasan and the grand masters who ruled the order after him wielded great political power until the coming of the Mongols. Hulagu Khan attacked and destroyed (1256) their fortresses and massacred most of the Persian branch of the sect. The Syrian branch, with which the Crusaders came in contact, suffered a similar fate at the hands of Baybars, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt. Only scattered groups of the order survived; they are said to persist today, particularly in N Syria. Tales of the Crusaders and the writings of Marco Polo brought the Assassins and the Old Man of the Mountain into European folklore. The term assassin came into English and is used today to mean murderer and particularly one who kills for political motives. [ Link ]
posted by Stuart_R at 8:42 AM on April 9, 2003


thankyou ghostinthemachine for assassin link - i had read it somewhere but couldn't find anything googling.
posted by dabitch at 9:30 AM on April 9, 2003


Actually, there seems to be some uncertainty over the etymology of "assassin", or at least over whether Hasan's followers actually used hashish.

In Marco Polo's account, Hasan, became known as "the old man of the mountains", would give liquid hashish to a group of 12 year old boys, knocking them unconcious. They'd awake in one of Hasan's beautiful gardens, surrounded by women, wine and the like, and were told that this was paradise. When Hasan needed someone to be killed, he'd tell them they could return to paradise if they followed his instructions or died in the process.

But, Marco Polo visted the area 150 years after Hasan's reign. And Hasan may have spoken Persian, not Arabic. But it seems that he hashish etymology is just so cool that its gained currency.
posted by gsteff at 10:12 AM on April 9, 2003


Kirkaracha, assassination is a useful tool when you can be assured that elimination of the target will bring about the effect you desire. When your purpose is to dismantle a system, assassination is not a good choice if someone else can step into the target's position of power and continue to operate your targeted system.

Bin Laden may be a good candidate for assassination because he is the central figure (and paymaster) for a relatively small organization. Saddam Hussein was probably not a good candidate because others (e.g., his sons) could step up and take control of the Iraqi system.
posted by joaquim at 10:12 AM on April 9, 2003


Tiamat- the point I'm trying to get across is that the method of killing is not the sole defining factor. If we roll a column of tanks up to his house and level it, it's not assassination (unless they're really fast tanks and not part of a larger invasion force, I guess). If we drop a bomb on him, launch a cruise missile against him, or even (yes) snipe him, it's assassination.

(i know, let it go... let it go...)
posted by mkultra at 10:58 AM on April 9, 2003


Executive Orders

How have U.S. presidents used executive orders to address the issue of political assassination?

In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford issued Executive Order 11905 to clarify U.S. foreign-intelligence activities. In a section of the order labeled "Restrictions on Intelligence Activities," Ford concisely but explicitly outlawed political assassination:

5(g) Prohibition on Assassination. No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.

Since 1976, every U.S. president has upheld Ford’s prohibition on assassinations. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter issued an executive order with the chief purpose of reshaping the intelligence structure. In Section 2-305 of that order, Carter reaffirmed the U.S. prohibition on assassination:

In 1981, President Reagan, through Executive Order 12333, reiterated the assassination prohibition:

2.11 No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.

Reagan was the last president to address the topic of political assassination. Because no subsequent executive order or piece of legislation has repealed the prohibition, it remains in effect


Pretty good site on the whole 'assassination legality' thing, dated Nov 18 2001 so primarily refers to Bin Laden et al.

Also in GulfWar 1, the (slightly larger) "coalition of the willing" included other gulf states such as Saudi Arabi and free Kuwaiti forces. A condition of them fighting in the coalition was that there would be no attempts to assassinate Saddam. This of course didn't stop the US from bombing just about every bunker they thought he could be in....sort of along the lines of "It's not my fault he got in the way"
posted by knapah at 11:23 AM on April 9, 2003


Please have some idea what you're talking about before posting.

This is a question, not bait: where does Fleisher's words from months back about the war having to cost only a single bullet, explaining that this would be the case if someone close to SH were to take him out? Is that an incitement of assassination, and is it covered by any of the texts/laws mentioned? I'm asking because, well you sound like you'd know, timat.
posted by holycola at 4:31 PM on April 9, 2003


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