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Post Murdering Foreign Leaders and International Law; from Ric Mauricio
Created by John Eipper on 09/11/17 4:41 AM

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Murdering Foreign Leaders and International Law; from Ric Mauricio (John Eipper, USA, 09/11/17 4:41 am)

Ric Mauricio writes:

Forgive me for asking, but isn't it against international law for a government (any government) to sanction the killing of foreign leaders?

Bin laden, by the way, as in JE's example, was not a foreign leader of any country. In fact, I believe he would fall under the category of combatant, which of course, would make his killing legal.

I believe that many of the names that Edward Jajko mentioned (10 September) would also come under the category of combatants or war criminals.

Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi were leaders of their respective countries, so those would be quite murky in terms of international legality.

JE comments:  The prohibition on killing foreign leaders in wartime doesn't make tactical sense--or does it?  Why are the common folk expected to die for their countries, while the leaders receive immunity?  (Granted, WWII changed this.)  Is it a legacy of royal families and elites carving out a "gentlemen's agreement" for themselves?  One (late) example:  in 1918, Wilhelm II was allowed to go into a comfortable exile.

How about this question for argument's sake:  since the Head of State is also the Commander-in-Chief, doesn't that make him/her a combatant?


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  • Assassination, "Decapitation Strikes," and International Law (Istvan Simon, USA 09/12/17 7:33 AM)
    Of course killing foreign leaders in time of war is not against International Law.  (See Ric Mauricio, 11 September.) That would be completely absurd. On the contrary, clearly the leaders of all countries are legitimate targets of war and should be targeted if it is thought that it would shorten the war.

    Tens of millions of lives would have been saved if Hitler were killed, say, in 1940. President Reagan very clearly targeted Gaddafi when we bombed his palace. He narrowly escaped, but members of his family died in the attack. Admiral Yamamoto has been already mentioned. We tried to kill Fidel Castro a number of times and it would have been absolutely great if we succeeded, and by the way would have been great for the cause of freedom and for the Cuban people that his odious regime enslaved.


    JE comments:  If the US does it, does this mean it's (internationally) lawful?  Who can walk us through the murky legal territory of government-level targeted killing?  Istvan mentions Fidel Castro.  The US was never at war with Castro.


    My layperson's Googling reveals that several presidents, beginning with Gerald R. Ford, issued Executive Orders to explicitly prohibit "assassination."  So as so often with the law, it's a question of semantics.  Who is a combatant?  When are we at war?  Clearly a declaration of war is not a necessary precondition.

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    • Our Assassins: Joint Special Operations Command (Timothy Ashby, South Africa 09/13/17 3:30 AM)
      In 1984 I worked for an Arlington, Virginia-based company called Management Logistics International (MLI). In latter years I've been bemused by its similarity to the fictional agency called "Technical Operations Support Activity" (TOSA) in Frederick Forsyth's 2013 novel The Kill List. WAISers who've read the book know that TOSA's mission was to track, find, and kill those so dangerous to the United States that they are on a document known as the Kill List.

      Our ostensible mission was to travel to countries within our regional specialties (mine was Latin America and the Caribbean) to conduct security reviews and "crisis management training" exercises (which even then were focused on counter-terrorism) at US diplomatic missions. We always traveled with small teams (usually four personnel) of very tough soldiers belonging to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). When we went to Latin America these teams consisted of Hispanic NCOs who at that time were all Vietnam veterans. They infiltrated the countries (Colombia, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, etc.) under our "official" cover, then disappeared for a few days until near the end of our mission, after which they exfiltrated with our civilian team.


      I got to know some of the JSOC men quite well. When they joined us on the last day before leaving the host country we would go out to bars and night clubs until the wee hours. After more than a few drinks, they would talk about their mission, assassinations. Without going into detail, I know from other sources that they were not boasting to impress me and my colleagues. While the JSOC men said that they were killing "bad guys"--narcotraficantes, etc.--I am fairly sure that they also eliminated political opponents that threatened (or that the US government in its wisdom, thought were threatening) national governments friendly to the USA. I had my first TS clearance at the time and in reading country reports found an interesting correlation between mysterious deaths and disappearances of communists, political dissidents and drug lords with the timing of our missions.


      One day I'll tell you an amusing story about how our team was shadowed in Quito, Ecuador, by a team of poverty stricken Cuban Dirección General de Inteligencia team.  (No--the JSOC lads didn't kill them!)


      JE comments:  Tim--you have material for your next novel!  As a Hispanist, I'm curious about how US Latinos could infiltrate, say, Uruguay or Colombia.  By accent and behavior, they would still stick out as foreigners.


      (How many of you knew this verb:  to "exfiltrate"?)


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      • Government-Sanctioned Assassination in Israel, Russia (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 09/15/17 3:28 AM)
        A good question from JE following a very interesting post by Timothy Ashby (13 September): How many of you knew this verb "to exfiltrate"?

        Well, some of us do know. Normally, this is called the "exfiltration operation," and remarkably neither the verb nor the noun figure in the Microsoft Word vocabulary.



        I was trained as a Spetsnaz officer (something similar to the British SAS), and after what is known as deep penetration behind the enemy lines shortly before the armed conflict, our targets would be political leaders, communications, supply systems, railways, bridges and similar. The order to start an operation would be relayed from Moscow only in case of war. Fortunately, it never happened and I was never deployed (another rare verb), so I shall not speak about my personal experience in what concerns assassinations. But Timothy mentioned one of the recent books by Frederick Forsyth who is not only a brilliant storyteller but whose descriptions are also very precise and correct, so for my story I shall use Forsyth's The Fist of God (1994) with my short introduction and comments.



        To the best of my knowledge, there are only two Intelligence Services that have assassinations as part of their routine business: the KGB and the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, usually referred to as Mossad meaning "The Institute." The KGB, since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been divided into many independent agencies, but primarily the FSO (Federal Protection Service), SVR (Foreign Intelligence) and FSB (Security Service). It used to be the largest intelligence service in the world. The KGB had Directorate S that was in charge of the so-called "illegals"--officers and agents who operated without any official cover sometimes using false identities. In this Directorate there was Department 2, directly responsible for assassinations on foreign soil.



        The Mossad (now this is Forsyth, not me) is the world's smallest and most gung-ho of the leading intelligence agencies. It has in the past and even quite recently undoubtedly undertaken many assassinations, using one of the three "kidon" teams--the word is the Hebrew for bayonet. The kidonim come under the Combatants or Komemiute Division, the deep-cover men, like officers of Department 2 of the KGB's Directorate S, the hard squad.



        Terminations (read assassinations) fall into two categories. One is "operational requirement," an unforeseen emergency in which an operation involving friendly lives is put at risk and the person in the way has to be eased out of the way, fast and permanently.



        The other category is for those already on the execution list. In Israel, this list exists in two places: the private safe of the Prime Minister and the safe of the Head of Mossad. Every incoming Prime Minister is required to see this list, which may contain between thirty and eighty names. One of the KGB/SVR defectors, Sergey Tretyakov, shortly before his sudden death, told Pete Earley that two FSO bosses revealed to him during a meeting in New York that they had so many names on their list that it would be difficult to co-op. Undoubtedly, among those names were Boris Berezovsky, Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko and they knew about it. Now all of them are dead.



        In Israel, the Prime Minister may either initial each name giving the Mossad the go-ahead on an "if-and-when" basis, or insist on being consulted before each new mission. In either event, he must sign the execution order.



        Broadly speaking, and again it concerns only Israel, those on the list fall into three classes. There are the few remaining top Nazis, though this class has almost ceased to exist. Class two are almost all contemporary terrorists, mainly Arabs who have already shed Israeli or Jewish blood like Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh (assassinated in a Dubai hotel in January 2010) or who would like to. Category three are those working for Israel's enemies and whose work carries great danger for Israel and her citizens if it progresses any further.



        The common denominator is that those targeted must have blood on their hands, either in fact or in prospect.



        If a hit is requested, the Prime Minister will pass the matter to a judicial investigator so secret few Israeli jurists and no citizens have ever heard of him. The investigator holds a "court" with the charge read out, a prosecutor and a defender. If Mossad's request is confirmed, the matter goes back to the Prime Minister for his signature. The kidon team does the rest... if it can.



        In Russia it is different. In June 2006, the Russian parliament passed a law permitting the president to authorise the intelligence agencies to assassinate "enemies of the state" abroad. The "enemies" are selected by the FSO and the Presidential Administration (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presidential_Administration_of_Russia#Current_staff_of_the_presidential_administration ). The President never signs the execution order but it is always known to the RIS (Russian Intelligence Services) where the order comes from. Then the chief of the Service (usually the SVR) summons the head of Directorate S and tells him to prepare a team.



        All the rest you may read in my book Assassins coming out in London in November 2018.


        JE comments:  Intriguing stuff.  It is most interesting how Israel puts the imprimatur of "due process" on its hit list, including a trial of sorts with a defender.  Russia makes do without the formalities.


        Please, Boris, let us know when Assassins becomes available.

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        • Government-Sanctioned Assassination: Israel and Russia Contrasted (Istvan Simon, USA 09/17/17 4:28 AM)

          Boris Volodarsky's posts are always fascinating, and his essay of September 15th was no exception.


          Assassination is a dirty business, but even in this dirty business there are degrees of morality and immorality, and what is regrettably acceptable and what is not. Boris says that only Russia and Israel do assassinations, but of course the United States does it too--for example we have the cases of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, the latter more problematic from the legal point of view, because he was an American citizen.


          Still, for me the line between legitimate and illegitimate is what the person assassinated did against the state which decided to kill him or her. And in this respect I consider Israel and the United States much better justified in what they do than Russia, with a whole string of sad, irresponsible, and immoral assassinations. Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Berezovsky did not wage war on Russia. They opposed Putin's regime, but mere opposition to a regime can hardly be a justification for murder. In contrast, all the people that Israel assassinated or the US killed did commit murder, something Boris also emphasized in his post.


          Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist. She wrote about Chechnya, but to my knowledge she never advocated violence against Russia, but merely reported on the terrible ways that Russia fought against the Chechnyan rebels. For this, she was killed, and her case is as good an example as any of the vileness and shameful behavior of the Russian government. Osama bin Laden, in contrast, declared war on the United States and murdered with the September 11 attacks 3,000 Americans. Anwar al-Awlaki similarly was inciting others to murder, and had in fact many murderous followers.


          JE comments:  States have laws, courts, and penal systems to deal with murderers.  This is the path taken by most nations.  Non-state actors, such as the Polish and French resistance in WWII, had/have no option other than assassination.  Government-sanctioned killing (assassination) will forever be morally ambiguous.  Boris Volodarsky wrote that Israel targets some individuals who present a grave danger "if their work progresses any further."  Isn't this pre-emptive assassination?

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          • Government-Sanctioned Assassination: UK (Timothy Ashby, South Africa 09/18/17 3:20 AM)
            I have enjoyed the views of Istvan Simon and Boris Volodarsky on many subjects, most recently on government-sanctioned assassinations.

            Most governments (with the exception of a few liberal EU members) practice government-sanctioned assassinations, but in such a way that their leaders are protected by the doctrine of plausible deniability (also known as CYA). My post on the US JSOC teams working under the "Management Logistics International" cover is a good example. However, I am aware that the UK did (and probably still does) also assassinate "enemies of the state," especially those that Istvan wrote are "inciting others to murder, and had in fact many murderous followers."


            The Chairman of an Isle of Man-based company that I founded a decade ago was the former Chief of the General Staff (most senior serving officer of the British Army) and Chief of the Defence Staff. Earlier in his career he was a squadron commander with 22nd Special Air Service (22 SAS) Regiment and later was Colonel Commandant of the SAS for a number of years.


            I won't mention his name for obvious reasons, but WAISers can figure it out.


            I became close to our Chairman and we shared many a glass of Château Barreyres, Haut-Médoc and wee drams of the Balvenie. He told me many stories of his adventurous life and "behind the scenes" SAS ops. The Chairman said that the primary reason that the Provisional IRA agreed to a cease fire, negotiate an end to their terrorism, and commit to peace in Northern Ireland was because SAS death squads systematically killed IRA members. Their leadership was told that their names were on the kill list and that they too would be eliminated if they didn't come to the peace table and behave afterwards. This operation was approved by Prime Minister Thatcher and continued by her successor John Major.


            By the way, writing this made me remember that I was once the "hostage" rescued by the SAS in a training exercise. A close friend of mine was an officer in 21 SAS (R), the reserve SAS regiment. It was all great fun--lots of flash bangs and blank firing, and numerous rounds drunk at the pub afterwards.


            JE comments:  Wow, Tim.  Good thing those pints were not drunk before the gunplay!


            It's certainly debatable whether assassination is what motivated the IRA to seek peace.  How can a state claim the moral high ground against a non-state organization it calls "terrorist," if it uses the same tactics?  Officially sanctioned torture is another example of this dilemma.


            I hope we'll explore this topic further.


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