Assassination was been part of history since the dawn of human civilization. In his 1978 book on the phenomenon, The Assassins: A Radical Sect in History, nonpareil historian Bernard Lewis gives a classical definition: “a murderer, most particularly one who kills by stealth or treachery, whose victim is a public figure and whose motive is fanaticism or greed.”
Some History. In the 11th century A.D. the Ismaili sect of Persia (now Iran) formed what became known the Hashshashin — the Arabic word entering general usage in the early 19th century. Lewis writes that the noun form most likely was an Arabic expression of contempt for the lifestyles of the sect’s practitioners. Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulegu destroyed the sect circa 1256 by successfully breaching their Alamut fortress, nestled in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea.
Many assassinations have dramatically changed the course of history. Think Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., which event triggered a series of wars and power struggles that ended with Augustus Caesar’s ascendancy, leading to the two-century apogee of Rome’s empire. Then there was the 1389 assassination of the Ottoman sultan Murad I, after the battle of Kosovo, by a Serbian knight who posed as a deserter to gain access. Six centuries later, Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic incited his subjects to massacre Bosnians. The June 28 double killing of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Bosnian Serb, was the spark that ignited World War I.
Factor in what economists call the “opportunity cost” of making choices: benefits yielded by choices foregone. In terms of targeted killings, think of how things might have gone had Hitler been taken out in 1936, after Germany annexed the Rhineland. There would have been no World War II, with its 50 to 60 million estimated killed; no Holocaust that wiped out six million, half of world Jewry’s population; no immediate postwar transfer of 35 million refugees. (Of course, historians would then have produced countless tomes arguing that Hitler had limited goals and could have been deterred by diplomatic compromise.)
Imagine if Imad Mugniyeh, Hezbollah’s strategic and operational genius, had been killed in 1985 by American forces, versus being killed by the Israelis in Damascus in 2008. That time, according to the late counter-terror expert Robert Kupperman, the Joint Chiefs decided to spare him and other Hezbollah commanders discovered hiding in a bunker; the JCS did this without informing Ronald Reagan. Mugniyeh planned more than two decades of terror attacks, killing thousands. Bill Clinton’s 1998 cruise missile strike struck Osama bin Laden’s camp shortly after OBL decamped. Would the September 11, 2001, attacks have been launched with bin Laden gone? Perhaps al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri could have accomplished this, perhaps not. Suppose Bush 43’s decapitation strike, aimed at killing Saddam and his satanic sons at Dora Farms hours before the start of the 2003 Iraq war, had succeeded? Saddam told interrogators after his capture that he had left hours earlier; President Bush had decided to wait until a 48-hour ultimatum given Saddam to leave Iraq expired, and the moment was missed. Had Soleimani been killed in 2004, by order of Bush 43, many thousands of lives would have been spared.
Existing American Law. Much has been made of objections to President Trump’s taking out Iran’s strategic and tactical genius, Qassem Soleimani. Many of these cited existing executive orders banning assassination of foreign leaders. Many critics ignored that Barack Obama launched 186 drone strikes in his first two years, and 567 overall for his eight years in office. In 2011, months after the bin Laden kill, Obama ordered the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, in Yemen; al-Awlaki had created the online magazine, Inspire, teaching and spreading jihad against the West.
As for legality of strikes like that on Soleimani, legal eagle Alan Dershowitz points out that they easily meet the requirements of acting in self-defense and proportional response. Another legal point is that there is recognized in law a distinction between “assassinations” and “targeted killings”:
The distinction between targeted killings and assassinations is twofold. First, targeted killing is justified in wartime or in self-defense. Attorney General Eric Holder explained of Obama’s drone program that “the Constitution empowers the President to protect the nation from any imminent threat of violent attack, and international law recognizes the inherent right of self-defense.” Accordingly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the killing of Soleimani with evidence that he was plotting “imminent and sinister attacks.”
Second, and just as important, “targeted killing” is used in reference to non-state actors, not political leaders. Since Donald Rumsfeld termed non-state actors “unlawful combatants” in 2002, the legal consensus has been that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to them. Though the legal status of terrorists remains unclear, the threshold for killing them is significantly lower than that for a military official.
In that Iran has been a sponsor of global terror since the Islamic Republic’s inception, its senior officials are legitimate war targets, and not given the legal immunity afforded legitimate political actors.
Limits of Presidential Authority. The U.S. operates under three executive orders: (1) EO 11905 (Ford, Feb. 18, 1976) banned political assassination of foreign leaders; (2) EC 12036 (Carter, Jan. 24, 1978) banned indirect involvement in same, and removed the adjective “political”; (3) EO 12333 (Reagan, Dec. 4, 1981) reiterated the Carter rule, verbatim: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”
The above bans were the fallout from public exposure of CIA assassinations, attempted assassinations, and concealment of same. This took place in the aftermath of the deceptions surrounding America’s entry into, conduct of, and eventual defeat in the Vietnam War; and the deceptions surrounding the crimes of Watergate.
Two other factors influenced adoption of the prohibitions. First was the fear that targets could retaliate against American leaders, including the president. Second was the widespread belief that either Fidel Castro or the Mafia was behind the JFK assassination. (Getting into the JFK morass is way beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to observe that with Moscow reaching a test-ban treaty in 1963 and JFK seeking accommodation, any attempt by Fidel to kill JFK would have greatly displeased Moscow, and likely led to Castro’s defenestration. Had the Mafia bumped off JFK, his attorney-general brother would have taken off all the gloves and waged an all-out war, sans due process. It was a “betting the company” risk that the mostly low-profile Mafia dons almost certainly would not have run.)
Presidential Assassination Antecedents. American history has seen four presidents assassinated: Abraham Lincoln (1865), by a disgruntled pro-slavery southerner; James Garfield (1881), by a disgruntled office-seeker; William McKinley (1901), by an anarchist; and JFK, by a Marxist who had defected to the former Soviet Union, only to be allowed to return to the United States. Three of these proved immensely consequential: Lincoln’s death precluded any chance for an early reconciliation between North and South; McKinley’s elevated Theodore Roosevelt to the Oval Office, whose presidency was successful, and ushered in the modern presidency; JFK’s ended postwar America’s innocence and sense of security.
Three near misses — FDR (1933), Harry Truman (1951), and Ronald Reagan (1981) — nearly drastically altered history as well. Had FDR been killed, America would likely never have entered World War II, as an isolationist foreign policy would have disentangled America from both Asian and European affairs. Truman’s death would have elevated Alben Barkley, whose career focus was almost exclusively on domestic affairs. In his magisterial 1992 book, Truman, historian David McCullough noted that Barkley, though only six years older than Truman, was so frail that Truman wrote in his diary, “It takes him five minutes to sign his name.” Ronald Reagan’s death would have short-circuited his all-out effort to win the Cold War; his successor, George H. W. Bush, was a supporter of coexistence.
The risk of assassination is taken so seriously that, since the Reagan near-miss, presidents have been surrounded by immense entourages, the Secret Service does extensive surveillance of each site and of known possible suspects, and when presidents travel to a war zone their visits are almost always unannounced.
Thus the risk is already priced in to presidential security, even in the 45 years that assassinations have been prohibited. Lifting or narrowing these rules would likely lessen the risk, as those thinking of targeting the president would have to worry about their own hides. Indeed, several top Iraqi Islamist leaders went into hiding in the wake of the Soleimani takedown.
What Should President Trump Do? The president cannot risk outright repeal, which could easily be portrayed as a presidential double-0 license. Retaining limits on presidential authority, so as to remove the scent of blanket executive license, permits effective presidential action. Congress, of course, will often protest such actions — at least, Democratic Congresses will do so in Republican administrations. Its formal toolkit always includes altering appropriations, passing legislation (by act of Congress or by Joint Resolution of both Houses), and impeachment. Short of that, the Senate can follow what Nancy Pelosi’s House did alone: enact a toothless concurrent resolution expressing disapproval and opining that the strike was illegal. Unlike joint resolutions, which have the force of law, concurrent resolutions are mere declarations with no legal effect.
Bottom Line. Lewis wrote — in 1967 — of the Assassins:
In one respect [they] are without precedent—in the planned, systematic and long-term use of terror as a political weapon.… Previous political murders, however dramatic, were the work of individuals or at best of small groups of plotters limited in both purpose and effect.…
Yet the undercurrent of messianic hope and revolutionary violence which had impelled them flowed on, and their ideals and methods found many imitators. For these, the great changes of our time have provided new causes for anger, new dreams of fulfillment, and new tools of attack.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, established in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini, from its earliest days to the present, has followed the script of the Assassins. It is what Henry Kissinger described as a revolutionary power, one that rejects the existing world order and seeks to replace it with a new one. Meeting this challenge requires that we deploy all available weapons — political, cultural, economic, and military — if we are to prevail.
In such an essential national security and civilizational endeavor, it is foolish to ban targeted killings. It gives the world’s worst actors a personal freebie when it comes to targeting our leaders, soldiers, and civilians. Our legal constraints, if interpreted too stringently, would become a form of unilateral disarmament. While today’s laws are not ideal, there is enough play in them for presidents to continue to do what Bush 43, Obama, and now Trump have done.
And that, as is oft said, is “close enough for government work.”
John C. Wohlstetter is author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb (2d. ed. 2014).