(Character) Assassination

The source of the Left’s outrage.

The old definition of a Puritan is a person who is constantly worried that somewhere, someone is having a good time. The new definition of a “Progressive” should be a person who worries that somewhere, someone is trying to kill terrorists. Rachel Maddow fit the bill last night on MSNBC.

Maddow mentioned a new wrinkle in the covert CIA concept that Congressional leftists exposed in June, which was never operational. According to the New York Times, the Agency hired the private security firm Blackwater as part of this plan.

Maddow launched into an exceptionally ill-informed speech:

War is one thing, but since the Ford administration, there has been an executive order in place banning assassinations by the U.S. government. So it’s little bit of a murky question as to whether or not this sort of thing would be legal if these killings happened in the U.S. or in a country that is an ally of ours. What happens if local law enforcement arrests the hit squad?…Who gets to hold them accountable if something goes haywire?

(N.B.: As usual, the Left’s greatest concern is punishing Americans.) She concluded in characteristic smirk, “I mean, if you are going to be operating in a lawless netherworld anyway, why not hire a lawless netherworld operator to do the job?”

As usual, the Left gets it wrong almost start-to-finish.

First, it is unclear what Blackwater’s role was to be in this hypothetical program. The Times story notes, “It is unclear whether the C.I.A. had planned to use the contractors to actually capture or kill al-Qaeda operatives, or just to help with training and surveillance in the program.” Whatever its intended role, “Blackwater’s work on the program actually ended years before Mr. Panetta took over the agency, after senior C.I.A. officials themselves questioned the wisdom of using” the company.

Secondly, there is little question such a program would be fully legal under national, and international, law. The U.S. planned the assassination of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba, and others during the height of the Cold War – and the world would have been better had they succeeded – but as historian Christopher Andrew has noted, “all the CIA’s assassination plots had either failed or been abandoned.” Gerald Ford’s Executive Order 11905, issued in February 1976, banned “political assassination,” and Ronald Reagan’s EO 12333 forbade anyone associated with the U.S. government to “engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” But, the EOs never define how assassination differs from the targeted attempt to kill a hostile military leader, much as Reagan launched Operation El Dorado Canyon, the April 1986 bombing raid of  Libyan President Muammar Quaddafi’s compound designed to kill him.

Maddow overlooks one crucial element of this discussion: the United States is at war with al-Qaeda. Congress approved the use of force against “nations, organizations, or persons he [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” This program, which never got underway, “was intended to kill high-value members of al-Qaeda abroad.” Even under international law, the U.S. needs only the permission of the relevant government to engage in a targeted killing within its borders during a time of war. “Lawless netherworld,” finis.

Finally, the targeted assassination of al-Qaeda leaders was suggested so as to minimize civilian deaths. As the Times reported in the “scoop” Maddow complimented, “Officials said that the C.I.A. program was devised partly as an alternative to missile strikes using drone aircraft, which have accidentally killed civilians and cannot be used in urban areas where some terrorists hide.” This is a far more humanitarian tactic than targeted bombings. (The 1986 raid killed Qaddafi’s 15-month-old adopted daughter, not him.) It certainly beats launching futile bombing attempts on Osama bin Laden which end up destroying empty tents, or aspirin factories.

Dick Cheney’s idea of keeping Americans safe involved killing al-Qaeda agents. Rachel Maddow prefers to protect al-Qaeda from Cheney.

This story originally appeared on Friday, August 21, 2009, on NewsRealblog.