When Pat Robertson, the televangelist who once ran for president, suggested that the U.S. consider assassinating Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez (search), he was roundly denounced by voices left and right.
Robertson is, of course, known for saying impolitic things. But, based on the breaking news that Chavez is seeking nuclear technology, perhaps Robertson’s assessment of the Venezuelan situation was more farsighted than impolitic. The Washington Times recently reported that Chavez is on the offensive, making “overtures to various countries” including Iran “about obtaining nuclear technology.”
Even more troubling than rumors of the Venezuelan government discussing the obtainment of nuclear technology is Chavez’s recent fraternization with Iran’s ruling bad boy, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (search), which has brought increased pugnacious policy choices in the southern hemisphere. After a handful of reciprocal trips by the two leaders, Chavez gave an interview to Al-Jazeera, which was transcribed by the BBC.
In response to questions concerning his confrontation with the U.S. (no doubt fueled by Robertson’s blatant call for his assassination), Chavez said, “I am on the offensive because attack is the best form of defense. We are waging an offensive battle. Yesterday, in Tehran, the spiritual guide [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei told me a true statement: power, power.”
In this case, Robertson might just be on to something: the thought of a little Khamenei in Venezuela with nuclear technology is less than pleasant.
To be fair though, despite the disheartening thought of a nuclear Venezuela ruled by a buddy of Khamenei’s, there is still a reasonable case to be made that whatever threat Chávez poses can be dealt with diplomatically. Of the world’s many tyrants and dictators, Chávez is among the less threatening to U.S. interests— even with Chavez’s inflammatory remarks.
He was elected twice, in two verifiably legitimate elections. And as of late, some administration officials and members of Congress have been trying to ease tensions with Venezuela, which occupies the awkward position of being both an ally to Communist Cuba and a major supplier of oil to the United States. Undoubtedly, Chavez’s overtures to obtain nuclear technology throws a monkey wrench in the tenuous diplomacy between the U.S. and Venezuela; however, it does not warrant Chavez’s swift assassination.
But, setting aside the particular case of Chávez, Robertson might just be on to something broader than the dismissal of Chavez. Maybe it is time to reconsider the Executive Order 12333 2.11 (search), that forbids the United States government from orchestrating strategic political assassinations of both foreign officials and terrorist leaders.
Technically, Reagan’s executive order — the latest of three comparable executive orders issued on the prohibition of assassinations — does not define “assassination.”
However, a declaration of war marks a situation wherein assassination is not prohibited by domestic law, because war itself necessitates directed violence by whatever means available. In other words, in times of war, ‘assassination’ is permissible. In addition to the permissibility of assassination in wartime, the intentional killing of a wrongdoer as an act of necessary and proportional self-defense is not considered “assassination,” by definition.
But why must we wait until our citizens are attacked on our soil to dispose of imminently dangerous terrorists?
The Terrorist Elimination Act (search) responds to this problem.
In the latest incarnation of legislation to repeal the ban, Rep. Terry Everett, an Alabama Republican, introduced a bill called the “Terrorist Elimination Act of 2003.” Everett’s legislation asserted that the assassination prohibitions, including Executive Order 12333, “limit the swift, sure and precise action needed by the United States to protect our national security.” It goes on to state that “present strategy allows the military forces to bomb large targets hoping to eliminate a terrorist leader, but prevents our country from designing a limited action which would specifically accomplish that purpose.”
The legislation would lift the ban on the assassination of terrorist leaders who pose a direct threat to national security, yet who have not committed a direct act of terrorism against the U.S. A change in this policy would allow intelligence and military communities to act quickly and decisively to stop terrorists before they are able to inflict harm upon the nation.
In addition to addressing the issue of peacetime strategic assassination, Everett’s legislation lifts the ban on the prohibition of non-military covert actions. The argument for such a change of policy is partially based on the fact that, on numerous occasions, the U.S. military has been ordered to use a military strike in the hope of removing a terrorist leader who committed crimes against the U.S. (That strategy is, in most cases, ineffective, as witness Bill Clinton’s attempt to do in Osama bin Laden with cruise missiles.)
Everett succinctly packaged the motivation behind this portion of the legislation when he stated, “I have a tough time understanding why we can spend tens of millions of dollars on a single effort to kill a terrorist leader of an organization, yet we can’t use covert activity against them.”
Although Everett’s legislation never made it out of committee, upon the prodding of Robertson’s impolitic words, we have every reason to revisit the question. After all, shouldn’t we be looking for every available tool to fight terrorism?
After Sept. 11, the legalization of strategic assassination gained support among some politicians, pundits and academics, many of whom argued that the limited use of assassinations could save lives and prevent terrorist attacks. Professor Jonathan Turley at George Washington University Law School argued that the ban on assassination actually encourages the use of military strikes: Our obsession with legal niceties thus increases the amount of collateral damage we inflict on innocent people. An example of this is the unintentional “assassination” of Moammar Kadafi’s three-year-old adopted daughter in a 1986 bombing attempting to target the Libyan dictator. Large-scale assaults to bring about regime change bring about even more indiscriminate damage.
Our military and intelligence communities are unnecessarily handicapped from being able to target these terrorists through smaller, more focused operations. In the new global terrorism environment, the United States can no longer afford to be locked into a position of responding to terrorist attacks exclusively with standard military operations. We must consider discriminating, preemptive, and covert intervention strategies. If we held a serious national debate on the question of assassinations instead of dismissing their use out of hand, many of the innocent lives lost in less discriminate military strikes might be saved.
We all might be a lot safer, too—and that’s something everyone, not just Pat Robertson, should want.
Olivia Albrecht is the John Tower National Security Fellow with the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. Ms. Albrecht researches international relations and national security issues, with a focus on the ‘Islamofascist’ phenomenon. Albrecht previously worked for the Pentagon (Non-Proliferation Policy) and with the Heritage Foundation, and is a graduate of Princeton University with a degree in Philosophy.