July 16, 2009 Topic: Security Region: Americas


It may be immoral. But is assassination actually an effective counterterrorism technique?

CIA Director Leon Panetta's June cancellation of a highly classified assassination program has produced a full-blown scandal. According to numerous reports, Vice President Cheney was behind the creation of the program in the aftermath of 9/11 and apparently directed the intelligence community to keep it hidden from Congress. The legalities, ethics and moralities of such an undertaking are debatable. But current headlines also offer the chance to discuss the big unspoken question: is assassination an effective counterterrorism technique?

Most reports about the program make it sound as if it was never fully operational. Ex-CIA officer Philip Giraldi, however, has stated that there was one failed operation (the details of which are unedifying to anyone who has watched 24 or read the works of Tom Clancy, and that's not even to mention unsurprising to those familiar with American intelligence). According to Giraldi's sources, CIA and Delta Force operatives tried to assassinate an al-Qaeda operative in Kenya while disguised as businessmen. But the job was botched. The would-be assassins had to be bailed out by the U.S. ambassador, who had not been informed of the operation. Recriminations and embarrassment ensued, and the program was put on ice. In the end, the CIA didn't formally put a stop to it until June 2009.

To be fair to our would-be assassination squad, such undertakings represent the most challenging, as well as nastiest, of intelligence operations. Risks are high and rewards may be few and hard to identify. What is known as "wetwork" in the trade is conducted by only a few security services, and then seldom and carefully-film depictions to the contrary. Nevertheless, mistakes are common and consequences can be far from what was intended.

Moreover, give Vice President Cheney and those responsible for the reported CIA program the benefit of the doubt: they were trying to address a glaring gap in America's counterterrorism capabilities. Much of the public debate about strategy and tactics against al-Qaeda over the last several years has focused on less-knotty issues, and is too often boiled down to a false "law enforcement vs. military" debate, which can resemble nothing more than the Lite beer "tastes great/less filling" commercials of old. There is no easy answer to the question of what is to be done with terrorists who enjoy de facto sanctuary in countries which are friendly-or at least not unfriendly-to the United States.

Dealing with terrorists in wild, unfriendly countries, however, is easy enough. When al-Qaeda high-value targets (HVTs) are discovered in the hinterlands of Yemen, for example, America calls a Predator or Raptor and dispatches the bad guy-and hopefully not too many innocents who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time-with a Hellfire missile. But what is to be done when an HVT is discovered in, say, Stuttgart or Brussels? Or London or Toronto? Given the extent to which al-Qaeda fighters, propagandists and fundraisers have found sanctuary of various kinds in Western countries, this is no hypothetical exercise.

Counterterrorism theory provides an answer of a sort. On paper, when American intelligence uncovers a terrorist cell in a friendly country, it informs the host government and allows the local security service to roll up the cell. But, unlike Jack Bauer, we don't always get our man. Still, we easily forget that, although fifteen of the nineteen hijackers who perpetrated the 9/11 atrocity were Saudis, most of the planning for al-Qaeda's "Planes Operation" happened not in the Middle East, but in Hamburg, Germany. What would we do about the next such terrorist "big wedding"?

Dispatching assassins to take out terrorist HVTs in friendly countries, without consulting the local security service-a "unilateral" in spy speak-sounds easy enough but is decidedly challenging in practice. Seasoned operators can pose as businessmen or some other form of non-official cover (NOC). But using fake foreign passports is risky. Any American assassins who happen to get caught-and some eventually will-may have to be sacrificed. Moreover, using American embassies as conduit for weapons is unwise, particularly if the ambassador has not been informed.

If we want to get serious about assassinations, it'd be good to look at their track record. Not many intelligence agencies conduct assassinations abroad on a routine basis, and fewer still do it well. Iran has dispatched dozens of its opponents abroad since 1979, including several hits in Europe and one confirmed assassination in the United States in 1980. Saddam's Iraq undertook wetwork against its enemies in the Middle East and Europe on occasion, though not always successfully. Russia, the inventor of the modern political assassination, still murders terrorists abroad, mostly Chechens. But Israel, above all others, is the one nation that has become the proving ground for wetwork in recent decades. So Americans should look there to see if assassination is an effective tool for ensuring national security.

Israel's reputed expertise in wetwork has been the subject of much speculation, selective condemnation, occasional admiration and several inaccurate films. In the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics, where members of the Palestinian terror group Black September gunned down eleven Israeli athletes, Israeli intelligence undertook an extended clandestine campaign to assassinate Palestinian extremists.

Payback for Munich continued for some twenty years and resulted in the deaths of as many as sixteen Palestinians in Europe and the Middle East, most of whom had little if any connection to the Munich atrocity. The first hit, killed in 1972, was a PLO representative in Rome who apparently had nothing to do with Munich. Only one victim had direct ties to the murder of the Israeli Olympians, and he wasn't eliminated until 1992.

Mossad made serious errors along the way. While in Norway in 1973, Israeli operatives killed a waiter they mistook for the leader of Black September. Six of the nine Israeli agents involved were arrested and five were convicted by the Norwegians. Although they served short prison terms, Israel was seriously embarrassed. Mossad networks across much of Europe were also blown and had to be slowly rebuilt.

Moreover, it has never been clear that Israel's legendary payback for Munich accomplished much of enduring value. While there can be no doubt that 1970s operation panicked the PLO and probably curtailed some terrorism against Israel, in no way did it facilitate the peace process; indeed, the opposite appears to be true. It is arguable that Israel radicalized the Palestinians by ruthlessly killing PLO representatives, and thus drove some to support the far more deadly and implacable Hamas in the late 1980s.

After the mixed results of the Munich operation, Israel changed tactics. Since the mid-1990s, the country has favored "targeted killings" over traditional assassination. The fact that Israeli intelligence now prefers to kill terrorists with missiles instead of silenced pistols says something important, and is a method not unrecognizable to Americans familiar with Predator drone strikes against the Taliban.

Israel's experience with assassination ought to be examined closely by any country seeking to attempt wetwork against terrorists. Although the CIA's assassination program never really got off the ground-which given American inexperience in such sensitive affairs may be just as well-the issues cited by Cheney and others will not go away, and need to be addressed in a serious and systematic fashion by spies and strategists. There's certainly ample false morality on display in protestations about recent revelations. It has never been clear to this author why killing terrorists with missiles, a method that frequently kills innocents too, is deemed acceptable, yet much more precise techniques without "collateral damage," like those practiced by the Mossad, are considered unthinkable. If America ever wishes to conduct an Israeli-style clandestine campaign against al-Qaeda, we would do well to think hard about what it is we are trying to achieve, and what the unintended consequences might be.


John R. Schindler is professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He previously served with the National Security Agency as an expert in counterterrorism and counterespionage. The opinions expressed here are his own.