The biggest non-scandal of the summer has got to be the revelation last month of a Bush-administration plan to kill key al-Qaeda figures. The CIA did not tell Congress about the program, which was never implemented. Leon Panetta duly canceled the program, such as it was.
If there is a scandal here, it’s the failure to implement the program (had the program been implemented without telling Congress, that might have qualified as a minor scandal) . As Nathan Sales, a law professor at George Mason University, argues:
Targeted killings can be easier on our troops, and more humane to innocent bystanders, than conventional military operations. If covert teams could eliminate Osama bin Laden or other al-Qaeda leaders, there would be less need to deploy thousands of soldiers to hot spots like Tora Bora. Fewer American lives would be on the line. Covert strikes can also mean fewer civilian casualties: There’s less danger of an errant bomb falling short of its target and exploding in a crowded neighborhood.
Sales also demonstrates that the targeted killing of al Qaeda leaders is almost certainly legal. It is likely authorized by the Authorization for Use of Military Force, under which the president may use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines” were responsible for the terrorist attacks. It is also likely authorized by the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA and gave it “such. . .functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the President. . .may direct.”
According to Sales, no law, domestic or international, bars us from targeting al-Qaeda as long as the U.S. is acting in self-defense. An executive order has banned the government from engaging in assassination, but the U.S. interprets the term “assassination” quite narrowly as an unlawful killing of a targeted person for political purposes. The targeted killings of terrorist leaders under the ill-fated Bush administration program would not have qualified as assassinations under this definition, any more than the Predator drone strikes against terrorist operatives in Pakistan that are occurring under the Obama administration.
That the Bush administration would fail to implement this program, and that the Obama administration would kill it off, speaks volumes about our growing lack seriousness when it comes to dealing with terrorists.