The Right Opinion

A Case for Targeted Killings

By George Will · Dec. 9, 2012

‘Gosh!’ Says Roosevelt
On Death of Yamamoto
– The New York Times
May 22, 1943

WASHINGTON – President Franklin Roosevelt was truly astonished when told by a reporter that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, had been shot down by U.S. planes over a Pacific island after Americans decrypted Yamamoto’s flight plans. FDR had encouraged this “targeted killing” – destroying a particular person of military importance – a phrase that has become familiar since Israel began doing this in 2000 in combating the second Palestinian intifada.

But was the downing of Yamamoto’s plane an “assassination”? If British commandos had succeeded in the plan to kill German Gen. Erwin Rommel in Libya in 1941, would that have been an assassination? If President Reagan’s 1986 attack on military and intelligence targets in Libya, including one that Moammar Gaddafi sometimes used as a residence, had killed him, would that have been an assassination? What about the November 2001 CIA drone attack on a Kabul meeting of high-level al-Qaeda leaders that missed Osama bin Laden but killed his military chief? An old executive order and a new technology give these questions urgent pertinence.

Executive Order 12333, issued by Reagan in 1981, extended one promulgated by Gerald Ford in 1976 – in response to revelations about CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro – and affirmed by Jimmy Carter. Order 12333 says: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” What, then, of the Navy SEALs who killed bin Laden? The new technology is the armed drone, which can loiter over the suspected location of an important enemy person and, in conjunction with satellite imagery, deliver precision-guided munitions in a matter of minutes.

Fortunately, John Yoo of the Berkeley School of Law has written a lucid guide to the legal and moral calculus of combating terrorism by targeting significant enemy individuals. In “Assassination or Targeted Killings After 9/11” (New York Law School Law Review, 2011/12) Yoo correctly notes that “precise attacks against individuals” have many precedents and “further the goals of the laws of war by eliminating the enemy and reducing harm to innocent civilians.” And he clarifies the compelling logic of using drones for targeted killings – attacking a specific person rather than a military unit or asset – in today’s “undefined war with a limitless battlefield.”

To be proper, any use of military force should be necessary, as discriminating as is practical, and proportional to the threat.

Waging war, says Yoo, is unlike administering criminal justice in one decisive particular. The criminal justice system is retrospective: it acts after a crime. A nation attacked, as America was on 9/11, goes to war to prevent future injuries, which inevitably involves probabilities and guesses.

Today’s war is additionally complicated by the fact that, as Yoo says, America’s enemy “resembles a network, not a nation.” Its commanders and fighters do not wear uniforms; they hide among civilian populations and are not parts of a transparent command and control apparatus. Drones enable the U.S. military – which, regarding drones, includes the CIA; an important distinction has been blurred – to wield a technology especially potent against al-Qaeda’s organization and tactics. All its leaders are, effectively, military, not civilian. Killing them serves the military purposes of demoralizing the enemy, preventing planning, sowing confusion and draining the reservoir of experience.

Most U.S. wars have been fought with military mass sustained by economic might. But as Yoo says, today’s war is against a diffuse enemy that has no territory to invade and no massed forces to crush. So the war cannot be won by producing more tanks, army divisions or naval forces. The United States can win only by destroying al-Qaeda’s “ability to function – by selectively killing or capturing its key members.”

After the terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, the Bill Clinton administration launched cruise missiles against suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan, hoping bin Laden was there. If the missiles had killed him, would this have been improper? In March 2003, in the hours before the invasion of Iraq, the George W. Bush administration, thinking it knew where Saddam Hussein was, launched a cruise missile strike against one of his compounds. Was it wrong to try to economize violence by decapitating his regime? Would it have been morally preferable to attempt this by targeting, with heavy bombing, not a person but his neighborhood? Surely not.

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

13 Comments

Capt. Call in New Mexico said:

George, you have correctly framed this situation. Indeed, the left in this country has always failed to understand that the Jihadists declared war on America the very first time that they attacked a citizen of the United States, as well as many other times in both word and action. The left irrationally decries and blames George Bush for the War on Terrorism. But America did not begin the conflict. Typical of the hypocrisy that is well-known in the leftist mindset, these same people are silent when Obama instigates American participation in the War known as the "Arab Spring" and then refuses to defend American citizens who are under attack.
Unfortunately, Obama will be the One known forever in history as the most corrupt and incompetent President we have ever had.

Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 12:29 AM

George Rogers Clark in Ohio said:

Asymmetrical war; it has new rules, or should have. Modern conflicts will seldom be fought by standing armies. The enemy are terrorists and insurgents, etc. As you said, Mr. Will, "So the war cannot be won by producing more tanks, army divisions or naval forces. "

Take out their command and control assets wherever possible; whether those be human or technical. Pass the ammunition, and a little more stuxnet, please.

Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 8:50 AM

Gregory in Yakima Wa. said:

Muslims didn't start the so called "Holy Wars", that credit goes to the Pope. The long history of western invasions of the middle east is conveniently over looked in George Will's essay.

It should also be noted that Iraq was not in possession of weapons of mass destruction prior to the ineffective "shock and awe" of G.W. Bush and his criminal band of neo-cons. As was pointed out a few days ago the chemical weapons provided by the U.S. to fight the Iranians had been used up or destroyed. The United Nations searches clearly demonstrated the absence of such weapons.

Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 11:55 AM

Richard in Martinsburg, WV replied:

Wonder where those chemical weapons came from that Syria's Assad is said to be readying for deployment? The Candyman? Since Syria doesn't have those facilities to generate chemical weapons (educated guess since I'm sure we'd have heard about from somewhere, surely the Israelis), I believe, as do many, that Saddam's WMD were trucked to Syria hours before the assault by the US began. No proof but common sense if you are so inclined to use it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 2:12 PM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA replied:

As usual you spout only those occurences that point out your misguided reasonings. Read a little history once in awhile and you might learn something. For instance the Battle of Tours and the Battle of Vienna that stopped the Moslem advance into Europe. Ask who controlled Spain for many years. You are so carried away about George Bush you completely disregard the laws Odumbo and his administration have broken, ie, Fast and Furious, bypassing Congress giving illegal aliens a path to citizenship, Benghazi, refusing to control the borders and suing states who try to control illegal aliens. Change your soggy diaper and get back in your delusion playpen.

Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 2:46 PM

enemaofthestatistquo in Monroe, GA replied:

The Pope DID NOT start the Holy Wars. Muslims attacked Christian Spain in 711, and attacked Christian Constantinople (Istantbul) in 674. Unlike you I did not relay upon my recollection of the History classes taken in school (which you evidently failed) but I based upon my recollections, looked it it before stating loose Unfactoids.

Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 3:33 PM

rab in jo,mo replied:

"The United Nations searches clearly demonstrated the absence of such weapons."

Oh, except for the 7 tons of yellowcake Uranium removed from Iraq and safely tucked away in Canada, that is.

As to the chemical weapons, the top Iraqi Air Force General confirmed two things: 1. Iraq had a large stockpile of chemical weapons and 2. said weapons were removed from Iraq and sent to Syria prior to the invasion.

See, some of us were paying attention during this time and don't have to rely on revisionist history.

Monday, December 10, 2012 at 8:24 AM

midfielder in St. Charles, MO replied:

Gregory, Are you a practising idiot or do you just froth at the mouth for fun? Islam started the war agaainst christianity in the seventh century. Their incursion was stopped at the battle of Tours, the Crusades were in answer to rape, robbery and enslavement of pilgrims going to Jerusalem.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 12:11 PM

Nam_Vet68 in Philadelphia said:

Whatever means necessary to protect the U.S.

Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 12:05 PM

Gregory in Yakima Wa. said:

This link provides photos and a few details of targeted terrorist leaders who met their end. Enjoy: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/09/sheik-khalid-bin-abdel-rehman-al-hussainan-dead_n_2267076.html

Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 1:57 PM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Jumpin' Jehosiphat, it's another Jihadi on a rampage--"What's that-you want 75 virgins?" Airborne Rangers will help you get to your fire& brimstone palace!

Monday, December 10, 2012 at 6:41 AM

pete in CA said:

The killing of an enemy is NEVER an assassination! War is the ultimate survival of the fittest - military. If you are attacked and opt to not defend yourself at every opportunity you deserve to be killed.

Politicians begin wars, soldiers finish them.

Monday, December 10, 2012 at 5:35 PM

Cowboy in San Antonio said:

I have know a person, who shall remain nameless, who works for the CIA. This person stated that no WMDs were found in Iraq---once we were in a position to conduct a decent search. That was the statement, simply that none were found. Does the statement "none were found" mean that Saddam never had any? Logically, no. We also have testimony of a large number of semi-tractor trailers hauling something into Syria just prior to our invasion of Iraq. Maybe they were cheeseburgers, but I would guess either gold, American cash, weapons, or all three. Some have said that Saddam boasted constantly of WMDs to keep Iran, and all other potential aggressors at bay. It would be a stupid enemy to take their enemy's word or anything. My gut tell me that Saddam, being the merciless tyrant he was, probably had every kind of nasty weapon he could get his hands on. To think otherwise would be extremely naive. And extremely foolish. And lease leave Greg alone. If he chooses to believe that the sun comes up in the west, that is certainly his right. Even showing him otherwise will convince him against his will.

Monday, December 10, 2012 at 8:45 PM