- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2001

In the wake of last week's deadly suicide attacks, U.S. policymakers need to take a second look at a tired 1970s anachronism that hampers America's flexibility to deal with the threats posed by brutal terrorists like Osama bin Laden and other sworn enemies of this country: the executive order banning the U.S. government from carrying out assassinations. It's important to remember that Congress has never passed any law banning this practice; in 1976, then-President Ford — cowed by a hostile Democratic Congress and, in particular, by "revelations" from a Senate Intelligence panel about U.S. efforts to kill Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and others — signed an executive order banning assassinations.

While the assassination ban has remained in effect, the United States has bombed Libya (1986) and Iraq (periodically since 1991), and fired cruise missiles at Afghanistan and Sudan (1998). In the cases of Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, U.S. officials (usually speaking off the record) have left little doubt that Washington would not be terribly upset if Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi or Osama bin Laden "inadvertently" died as a result of U.S. air strikes.

In official Washington, most politicians still cling to the bizarre notion that it's morally OK to stage large-scale air raids, which can kill a whole lot of people (including children and other innocents), and it's OK to send in ground troops, putting countless thousands of American lives at risk. Yet, it is supposedly unconscionable (a "violation of international law") to send a hit team to take out a mass murderer like Saddam or Osama bin Laden.

But, according to George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley (his column appears opposite this page), even Mr. Ford's ill-conceived executive order can reasonably be interpreted to permit an effort to assassinate bin Laden. Mr. Turley writes that the order was intended to prevent the killing of foreign leaders. Since bin Laden is the leader of a terrorist network, not a head of state, the assassination ban doesn't protect him. But there's a more direct way to deal with this problem: President Bush has the power to repeal or modify the ban. By continuing the current policy, Mr. Turley notes, "we are not maintaining a moral position today," but are instead "killing third parties to maintain the appearance of a moral position."

It is sometimes argued that the United States has an "alternative" to killing a bin Laden: launching a commando operation to capture him and bring him to the United States for trial. But the logistics of such an operation would be tremendously daunting and could well put more American soldiers' and agents' lives at risk. In short, the current policy is long on feel-good sentiment and short on common sense. To the extent that U.S. policymakers actually follow it, they ensure that more American and foreign civilian lives are endangered every time the U.S. tries to bring a bin Laden to justice. Mr. Bush must change the assassination policy right away, in order to begin the process of finding a more balanced, thoughtful approach to the problem of neutralizing the bin Ladens of the world.

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