A Brief History of Targeted Killing

Nations have undertaken targeting operations---sometimes, impermissible assassinations---for a very long time. According to Mark Vlassic (citation below), the early Romans, Greeks, and Persians engaged in such killings. Similarly, Uri Friedman claims that, even into the fourth century B.C., it was common for states to try to remove an enemy’s leadership using individualized targeting.

Vlasic notes that, traditionally, such targeting was not limited to the context of prototypical war. He asserts that during war, the targeted killing of specific persons was largely uncontroversial, but that there were limits on what was considered permissible and a lingering question regarding whether targeting could ever be used outside of an armed conflict. Yet Friedman asserts that the lines drawn between peace and war, and between illegal assassinations and lawful targeted killings, have long been cloudy.

In the United States, commentators have cited different government operations as meaningful predecessors of the US government’s current targeting program. Jack Goldsmith has cited as support for the domestic legality of today’s targeted killing program the example of the United States targeting and killing Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, during World War II. Kevin Jon Heller disputes that claim, arguing that the context of the Second World War---an international armed conflict--- is entirely different from the current fight against terrorism.

Others reference the US government's assassination attempts against Cuba’s Fidel Castro and others uncovered by the Senate’s Church Committee in the 1970s. The Church Committee was convened in 1975 after media and other revelations implicating the US intelligence community in covert activities of questionable legality. The Committee expressed concern that the USG was able maintain the secrecy of assassination plots in an open society. In addition, the Committee found that command and control of the assassination plots it had reviewed was sorely lacking. President Gerald Ford responded by issuing E.O. 12,333, which bans “political assassinations” by the U.S. government and remains in force today. Critics of the USG’s current targeted killing program cite the Church Committee and the ban on assassinations in part to argue that the program is impermissible.

Further Reading

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