TRIALS BY FIRE - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

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TRIALS BY FIRE - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

an assassination? Executive Order (EO) 12333 states, “No person employedby or acting on behalf of the US Government shall engage in, or conspire toengage in, assassination.” Therefore, if targeted killings are classified as assassinations,the US program to lethally eliminate terrorists is in violation of thisExecutive Order.Current US government interpretation of EO 12333 holds that targeted killingsof suspected terrorists are not assassinations, and are therefore permittedunder domestic law. 228 This ban on assassinations was implemented in 1976after it came to light that CIA officers—at the behest of the White House—hadtried unsuccessfully to kill foreign heads of state.While EO 12333 does not define the term ‘assassination,’ the US governmentinterprets it narrowly to mean the intentional killing of a political leader, andthe US generally does not consider terrorist leaders to be political leaders. 229Furthermore, US officials have interpreted EO 12333 to mean that enemycommanders may be targeted during wartime. Thus, the ‘decapitation strikes’against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedomin 2003 were indeed legal.The US has also claimed that terrorist groups pose an imminent threat to US nationalsecurity since at least the late 1990s, providing an additional self-defenserationale for US forces to legally target terrorist individuals and organizationsfor capture-or-kill operations. For example, after the 1998 al Qaeda attacks onUS Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Clinton authorized in a classifiedpresidential finding the use of lethal force against al Qaeda. 230 Clinton’s NationalSecurity Advisor later testified to Congress that then-Justice Departmentrulings did not prohibit “our effort to try to kill Bin Laden because it did notapply to situations in which you are acting in self defense.” 231 In the aftermathof 9/11, President Bush built on President Clinton’s 1998 finding by signing aclassified presidential finding authorizing the capture and killing of al Qaedaoperatives worldwide, clearing the way to further target the terrorist group. 23292 Trials by Fire: Counterterrorism and the Law

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