The Foreign Service Journal - June 2017
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JUNE 2017



He instituted this prohibition after investigations by the

Church Committee (the Senate Select Committee to Study

Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities,

chaired by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho) and the Pike Committee

(its House counterpart, chaired by Rep. Otis G. Pike, D-N.Y.) had

revealed the extent of the Central Intelligence Agency’s assassina-

tion operations against foreign leaders in the 1960s and 1970s.

With a few exceptions, the next several presidents upheld the

ban. But in 1986, President Ronald Reagan ordered an attack on

Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s home in Tripoli, in retali-

ation for the bombing of a nightclub in Berlin that killed a U.S.

serviceman and two German citizens and injured 229. In just 12

minutes, American planes dropped 60 tons of U.S. bombs on the

house, though they failed to kill Gaddafi.

Twelve years later, in 1998, President Bill Clinton ordered the

firing of 80 cruise missiles on al-Qaida facilities in Afghanistan

and Sudan, in retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in

Kenya and Tanzania. The

Clinton administration jus-

tified the action by asserting

that the proscription against

assassination did not cover

individuals whom the U.S.

government had deter-

mined were connected to


Days after al-Qaida car-

ried out its Sept. 11, 2001,

attacks on the United States,

President George W. Bush signed an intelligence “finding” allow-

ing the Central Intelligence Agency to engage in “lethal covert

operations” to kill Osama bin Laden and destroy his terrorist

network. White House and CIA lawyers argued that this order was

constitutional on two grounds. First, they embraced the Clinton

administration’s position that E.O. 11905 did not preclude the

United States’ taking action against terrorists. More sweepingly,

they declared that the ban on political assassination did not apply

during wartime.

Send in the Drones

The Bush administration’s wholesale rejection of the ban on

targeted killing or political assassinations reversed a quarter-cen-

tury of bipartisan U.S. foreign policy. It also opened the door to

the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct targeted killings

(a euphemism for assassinations).

The U.S. Air Force had been flying unmanned aerial vehicles

(UAVs), since the 1960s, but only as unmanned surveillance

platforms. Following 9/11, however, the Department of Defense

and the Central Intelligence Agency weaponized “drones” (as

they were quickly dubbed) to kill both leaders and foot soldiers of

al-Qaida and the Taliban.

The United States set up bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan

for that purpose, but after a

series of drone attacks that

killed civilians, including

a large group gathered for

a wedding, the Pakistani

government ordered in 2011

that the U.S. drones and

U.S. military personnel be

removed from its Shamsi

Air Base. However, targeted

assassinations continued to

be conducted in Pakistan by

drones based outside the country.

In 2009, President Barack Obama picked up where his

predecessor had left off. As public and congressional concern

increased about the use of aircraft controlled by CIA and military

operators located 10,000 miles away from the people they were

ordered to kill, the White House was forced to officially acknowl-

The MQ-9 Reaper, a combat drone,

in flight. Inset: Members of the

New York Air National Guard’s

1174th Fighter Wing Maintenance

Group place chalks on a MQ-9

Reaper after it returned from a

winter training mission at Wheeler

Sack Army Airfield, Fort Drum,

N.Y., Feb. 14, 2012.


The Bush administration’s

wholesale rejection of the ban

on targeted killing opened the

door to the use of unmanned

aerial vehicles to conduct

targeted killings.