"It sounds great in movies, but when you try to do it, it's not that easy." That's what a former intelligence official told the New York Times on Tuesday about the CIA's canceled secret program that involved plans to send paramilitary teams around the world to assassinate top al-Qaeda leaders.
"The idea of CIA assassination teams evokes movie-style images of black-clad specialists climbing through windows to silently garrote their targets," Corey Flintoff wrote in Tuesday's NPR.org.
In reality, the question is: Can the CIA go after terrorists with impunity?
Although the program appears to have never been carried out, it remained secret, since its inception in 2001, even from Congress. That was until last month when CIA director Leon Panetta announced he was canceling it. The secret plan was in effect for so long because officials wanted a more precise way to kill terrorists than by drone aircraft missile strikes on suspected al-Qaeda sites, which frequently resulted in civilian casualties.
In 1976, after the disclosure that the CIA had plans to assassinate Fidel Castro, Gerald Ford's executive order on foreign intelligence activities explicitly prohibits "political assassination." That ban was aimed specifically at attempts on the lives of foreign leaders. Supporters of the 2001 plan argue that al-Qaeda leaders are no different than soldiers on a battlefield, making them legitimate targets.
According to the Geneva Conventions, it would be lawful for one uniformed soldier to kill another uniformed soldier. It would also be lawful, for a soldier, on the battlefield or operating a drone aircraft from afar, to target someone out of uniform who was participating in terrorist activities.
Is the United States technically at war with al-Qaeda? The way international law might apply to the secret 2001 program depends on this question. Would it be lawful for non soldiers such as CIA agents to engage in killing of any kind? The fact that they are not in uniforms could be interpreted as "feigning noncombatant status," which is a violation of the laws of war.
There is the long-held argument that the global war on terrorism is not a war in the legal sense, which would mean sending CIA operatives to kill terrorist suspects would be a military action against a private group. Juliet Lapidos, in an article in Tuesday's Slate.com, says this is "no different from sending the CIA to Italy to murder suspected members of the mafia, and a violation of the basic notions of state sovereignty."
Lapidos goes on to say that the argument can be made that if the CIA kills a terrorist in a foreign country, "it's kosher because it's a form of self-defense, where the 'self' in question is the United States of America. It doesn't matter whether the terrorist is currently engaged in fighting - only that he's a terrorist."
Targeted assassinations, according to the defenders of the secret CIA initiative, would be no different from what the United States is trying to accomplish with unmanned Predator drone missile attacks in Pakistan. President Obama has continued this Bush administration tactic.
The question remains: Should Congress have been briefed about the plan? Supporters of the plan say no, that the plan was simply not advanced enough to warrant notifying Congress. They point to the controversy that arose after Panetta briefed Congress on the program. The media attention and public discussion illustrates the danger of exposing a highly sensitive and secret program to the risk of congressional leaks.
The secret program never got off the ground, but since word leaked out about it, the discussion has continued. The question remains: What's the difference between assassinating someone with a missile and assassinating them with a handgun? That one's up for debate.
The whole idea of secret CIA assassination squads lurking in the shadows with terrorist leaders in their cross-hairs, wearing dark suits and smoking Marlboros, sure sounds like something out of a movie. Or maybe a comic book. The Geneva Conventions are taken about as seriously as Comic-Con.