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Enhanced Assassination Techniques


For the record, we may not put a foreign-born terrorist in a stress position under any circumstances, but we may assassinate American citizens provided we first get permission:

The U.S. intelligence community policy on killing American citizens who have joined al Qaeda requires first obtaining high-level government approval, a senior official disclosed to Congress on Wednesday.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said in each case a decision to use lethal force against a U.S. citizen must get special permission.

“We take direct actions against terrorists in the intelligence community,” he said. “If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that.”

He also said there are criteria that must be met to authorize the killing of a U.S. citizen that include “whether that American is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American is a threat to other Americans. Those are the factors involved.”

Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R., Mich.) asked Blair:

“So there is a framework and a policy for what’s hypothetically a radical born cleric … who’s living outside of the United States, there’s a clear path as to when this person may be engaging in free speech overseas and when he may have moved into recruitment or when he may have moved into actual coordinating and carrying out or coordinating attacks against the United States?”

Mr. Blair responded that he would rather not discuss the details of this criteria in open session, but he assured: “We don’t target people for free speech. We target them for taking action that threatens Americans or has resulted in it.”

He added, “The reason I went this far in open session is I just don’t want other Americans who are watching to think that we are careless about endangering … lives at all. But we especially are not careless about endangering American lives, as we try to carry out the policies to protect most of the country and I think we ought to go into details in closed session.”

The point here is not that we shouldn’t have clear and thoughtful standards in place for determining when an American citizen (such as American-born jihadist and Ft. Hood shooter/Christmas Day bomber mentor Anwar Al-Awlaki, the target of recent drone strikes in Yemen) has engaged in treasonous activities against the United States, and can therefore be targeted as an enemy belligerent.

The point is that, if there are circumstances in which it is permissible for a government to kill American citizens for plotting acts of war against the United States, then surely there must be circumstances in which it is permissible to do a number of things short of killing them.

UPDATE: In response to readers who say that my “point” isn’t much of a point, I can only agree. One reader says I owe an account of which things “short of killing” I think are permissible to do a terrorist, and under which circumstances. 

Thankfully, it isn’t my job to adjudicate the matter, and my opinions on it are decidedly unsettled (and at times unsettling). I merely wanted to point to the prima facie oddness of a government that finds it acceptable in certain instances to kill American citizens abroad in order to disrupt plots against the republic, but finds it unacceptable to use enhanced interrogation techniques in pursuit of the same end.

Indeed, I intentionally kept my conclusion vague, because I’m unqualified and unprepared to endorse specific rules governing interrogation. And I purposefully didn’t mention techniques like waterboarding, which, even if it isn’t torture, is sufficiently close to torture to avoid being glib about. But I could do both and still open up the logical space between the two positions.

Another reader wondered whether my admittedly shabby argument could be used to justify torturing murder suspects (since it is already permissible for the state to kill them upon conviction). Again, my argument isn’t ambitious enough to justify any such thing. But I should say that the two cases aren’t analogous for a number of reasons, the most relevant of which is that capital punishment is punishment (at least in large part; that’s a whole other argument.). Killing American terrorists abroad is not intended to be retributive, but preventive. As Blair states explicitly in his testimony, American-born terrorists are only considered for assassination if they are involved in plots that pose an active and ongoing threat to American citizens. Mutatis mutandis, it is plausible (and I’d say, sensible!) to reject a technique for use as punishment, but to support the use of that same technique in an attempt to prevent some future harm.


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