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Georgetown Journal of International Law: Assassination and Targeted Killing

Author: Mark V. Vlasic


This Georgetown Journal of International Law article conducts a historical survey of assassinations and targeted killings, following up with a legal analysis of the bin Laden killing as a precedent for future American counterterrorism operations.

Military strikes against such individuals as Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, have raised questions, across the world, about the gray area surrounding the law on assassinations, targeted killings, and the vagueness of presidential Executive Order (E.O.) 12,333, the domestic prohibition of assassination. In the past, questions regarding assassination law might have focused on "cloak-and-dagger"- type discussions—exploding cigars and poisoned umbrellas—or exploring the legality of individual "hit teams." But now, with the advent of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as "Predator" and "Reaper" drones, it is possible for governments to engage in targeted killing operations, continents away, while sitting at a computer terminal, thus raising additional legal and policy questions regarding what constitutes an assassination and what may be deemed a permissible targeted killing.

While many of us may be familiar with the so-called presidential "ban" against "assassination," we should also understand that the legal analysis around E.O. 12,333, assassinations, and targeted killings have evolved since the order was first signed in 1976. Often pressed by geopolitical considerations and tactical operational demands, policy makers and government lawyers have been reviewing the legality of state-sponsored assassination and the targeted killing of individuals in more and more detail throughout the last thirty-five years, revealing the vastness of the gray area surrounding assassination. And while much of the legal analysis done by the U.S. Departments of Defense,Justice, and State, and the National Security Council is classified, public discourse—by the press, scholars, and academics—tends to center such discussions on the definitions of the terms "assassination" and "targeted killing," the legality (or illegality) of such acts, and the reasons for and against their use.

Despite public debate on assassination, public discussion by government officials often remains a taboo topic, adding to the collective confusion. Only recently have U.S. officials elaborated on the legal basis for the specific targeting of individuals.

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