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Tell the Truth About U.S. Assassination Policy
Telling all when it comes to targeted killing.

The Baltimore Sun
November 14, 2002

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld probably spoke for most Americans when he called the Nov. 3 death of Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi "a very good thing." Mr. al-Harethi, recall, was a suspect in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and al-Qaida's chief operative in Yemen. With a resume like that, few Americans likely paused to mourn his passing.

But the way he died may give pause to Americans concerned with how their government is prosecuting the war on terrorism. Mr. al-Harethi, also known as Abu Ali, was killed -- executed, if you like -- by a remote-controlled U.S. missile strike on his car as he drove around the northern Yemeni province of Marib.

Or so the story goes. Unfortunately, press citations from anonymous U.S. officials are about all the confirmation the public has of how this man met his end. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in an interview with CNN, stopped short of calling the attack a U.S. operation. President Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, deflected questions about U.S. involvement. "Sometimes the best course is a good offense," he said -- effectively telling reporters, and the public, to read between the lines.

What gives? After all, the Bush administration's post-9/11 pursuit of a policy of targeted killings is not particularly surprising or even, apparently, disturbing to most Americans. After the attacks, the administration, according to The Washington Post, decided that executive orders banning assassination do not prevent the president from lawfully singling out a terrorist for death by covert action.

The decision appears to have paid off with voters. There was no great outcry when the United States nearly killed Taliban leader Mullah Omar with a targeted missile strike on the first night of Operation Enduring Freedom, or when the CIA in May launched a Hellfire missile at Afghan Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Criticism has come instead, predictably, from Europe. "Even terrorists must be treated according to international law," Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lundh said in condemning the Yemen strike. "Otherwise any country can start executing those whom they consider terrorists."

Foreign opinion aside, what should disturb Americans is the administration's refusal to openly acknowledge its involvement in what until recently had been a taboo U.S. tactic: assassination. Mr. Fleischer, at a Nov. 5 press briefing, struck a note that should unsettle every small-D democrat when he said of the terror war, "There are going to be things that are done that the American people may never know about."

With rhetoric like that, one is tempted to ask what will become of government of, by and for the people.

In a way, one can't blame the administration for soft-pedaling operations of this sort. The tide turned against assassination decades ago, when in 1975 the congressional committee headed by Sen. Frank Church of Idaho revealed the CIA's "unseemly" behavior in attempts to kill foreign leaders in the 1960s and 1970s.

And in 1981, Ronald Reagan signed an executive order banning the assassination of political leaders. Sept. 11 changed all that, of course. Bush administration officials have said that the ban does not apply to al-Qaida terrorists, who are not national leaders.

Despite such distinctions, the new policy carries "difficulties," says Frederick P. Hitz, a Princeton University professor and former CIA inspector general. "How many nations are going to tolerate the possibility that U.S. forces are going to zap a citizen on their territory?"

Whether targeted killing is a moral or even effective way to deal with American enemies is subject to debate. But if the White House is going to do it -- and the al-Harethi killing makes deadly clear that it is -- the American public at least needs to be let in on it, as is the Israeli public when it comes to Israel's own assassination policy. Not in the form of blow-by-blow, on-camera CIA or Pentagon analyses of strikes against individuals, necessarily, but certainly in a more visible, accountable manner than an anonymous quote. "We did it," one would like to hear Mr. Fleischer say, "and here's why." That has a nice, democratic ring to it.

Like any other policy, assassination should be subject to public scrutiny. Because if the administration is indeed correct in thinking that Americans will OK any means necessary to fight this war, then there is no reason to leave truth-telling up to unidentified "U.S. officials."

To get consent, in other words, advise.

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