Assassinating Iranian Nuclear Scientists

Glenn Greenwald, who as of today is blogging for Salon, has a rather shocking post up entitled, “Extremist Bush supporter calls for murder of scientists.” I figured some whacked out global warming foe had gone over the edge.

It turns out the culprit is none other than “University of Tennessee Law Professor and right-wing blogger Glenn Reynolds.” The InstaPundit is calling for murdering scientists?! I thought he liked scientists?

It turns out it’s this post on responding to the threat from Iran that has Greenwald upset:

We should be responding quietly, killing radical mullahs and Iranian atomic scientists, supporting the simmering insurgencies within Iran, putting the mullahs’ expat business interests out of business, etc. Basically, stepping on the Iranians’ toes hard enough to make them reconsider their not-so-covert war against us in Iraq.

Says Greenwald:

Just think about how extremist and deranged that is. We are not even at war with Iran. Congress has not declared war or authorized military force against that country. Yet Reynolds thinks that the Bush administration, unilaterally, should send people to murder Iranian scientists and religious leaders — just pick out whichever ones we don’t like and slaughter them. No charges. No trial. No accountability. Just roving death squads deployed and commanded by our Leader, slaughtering whomever he wants dead.

I’m not sure assassinating Iranians is a great idea; then again, I don’t think there are any particularly pleasant options on the table. Still, this doesn’t strike me as “extremist and deranged.”

As a general rule, we don’t bring charges against foreign enemies, let alone give them trials. We haven’t had a declared war since V-J Day, yet we’ve conducted more military operations that killed foreigners than I can count. Goodness, that’s true of just the eight years of the Clinton administration. We conducted numerous bombing campaigns against al Qaeda-linked targets, various facilities in Iraq, and the assets and troops of the Yugoslavian government, to cite the more prominent and deadly examples.

Every U.S. President since Gerald Ford — including Ronald Reagan — has either issued or left standing an Executive Order which expressly provides:

No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.

Every administration, Democratic and Republican, have agreed that creating death squads and engaging in extra-judicial assassinations is so repugnant to our political values and so destructive to our moral credibility around the world that an absolute ban is necessary — including at the height of the Cold War, as we battled the “evil empire” which had thousands of nuclear-tipped warheads pointed at numerous American cities.

As Elizabeth B. Bazan’s excellent report [PDF] for the Congressional Research Service makes clear, though, the interpretation of that line is far from clearcut:

However, the scope of the term seems to be the subject of differing interpretations, both generally, and depending upon whether the killing at issue took place in time of war or in time of peace. For example, it might be contended that the Ford executive order and its successors were responding to concerns raised with respect to killing of foreign officials or heads of state, and may not have been intended to extend to killing of others. Such an interpretation would be consistent with the focus of the Church Committee’s investigation, to which the Ford executive order responded.

Greenwald observes that “the first Order on assassinations was issued by Abraham Lincoln (General Order 100) in the midst of the Civil War.” But, from the standpoint of the United States Government, the citizens of the states which had seceded from the Union were still citizens of the United States and therefore subject to the protections of the Constitution. (That did not, one may recall, stop Lincoln for ordering the killing of hundreds of thousands of them on the battlefield.) Iranian nuclear scientists are not, last I checked, American citizens.

The law of war does not allow proclaiming either an individual belonging to the hostile army, or a citizen, or a subject of the hostile government, an outlaw, who may be slain without trial by any captor, any more than the modern law of peace allows such international outlawry; on the contrary, it abhors such outrage.

Of course, we target terrorist camps, weapons factories, and the like for military destruction with some frequency. Certainly, if we had a shot at Osama bin Laden, we would take it. We killed al Zarqawi and dozens of al Qaeda leaders in various attacks. The Israelis routinely assassinate Hamas and Hezbollah leaders.

Kristen Eichensehr lays out the moral high ground/encouraging retaliation in kind argument, which I find somewhat persuasive. But that’s a different thing than pretending that targeted killings of foreign people deemed national security threats are somehow verboten.

And what is most striking is that these anti-assassination prohibitions apply (a) to wartime and (b) even to foreign leaders of nations who are at war. But here, Reynolds is actually advocating that we murder scientists and religious figures who are “radical,” whatever that might happen to mean in the unchecked mind of George Bush.

If we are to be a country that now sends death squads into nations with whom we are not at war to slaughter civilians — scientists and religious figures — what don’t we do? American credibility in the world has fallen to literally unimaginable depths over the last six years, but it is critical to remember that with a President never to face the electorate again, many Bush supporters — and certainly the White House itself — are headed in the direction of increasingly extremist and bloodthirsty measures. And it is hard to overstate what a complete disregard they have — really an intense contempt — for the values that have long defined this country.

Here, excepting the rhetorical excesses, Greenwald is on much more solid ground. There are some strong arguments to be made against political assassinations, especially against the likes of religious leaders and scientists, as well as for allowing the executive to conduct them unchecked by legislative oversight.

It would be more fruitful, in my judgment, without poisoning the well by deeming proposals “extremist and deranged.” Then again, faux outrage is more likely to get attention.

FILED UNDER: General, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Steve Verdon says:

    Didn’t Clinton authorize a cruise missile strike against Bin Laden? What is that if not assassination? Sure it isn’t like sending in a team of Delta Force special operators who take the offending target out at about 2,000 yards, but dead is dead. Does Greenwald think Clinton is a deranged and extremist? If not then Greenwald is a fool.

  2. Anderson says:

    Since *when* is an Iranian nuclear scientist in the same ballpark as Osama bin Laden?

    To quote one philosopher, it “ain’t the same ballpark, ain’t the same league, ain’t even the same f—in’ sport.”

    Reynolds’ logic would justify Iran in doing *what* to the U.S., exactly?

  3. Anderson says:

    Scott Lemieux treats this with the appropriate contempt:

    Yeah, if a foreign government just started to kill American religious leaders and scientists, you’d barely notice! Maybe the President would send a strongly worded memo! Can he possibly believe that this would be “quiet”? Teh stupid, it burns.

  4. I caught that article also. I was drawn in by the headline, which led me to believe an Ann Coulter clone had called for the murder of Darwinists. The article turned out to be, if not ado about nothing, certainly misleading. Glenn Reynolds as an “extremist Bush supporter” is also a tough sell.

  5. >We haven’t had a declared war since V-J Day

    I completely disagree. Whenever congress authorizes the President to use military force again a foreign nation, as it does regularly, it has declared war even if the act doesn’t specifically refer to itself as thus.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Anderson,

    I agree on the retaliation point and am not sold on treating scientists as targets, as noted in the post.

    Then again, the Iranian regime has been waging low level war on the United States since 1979, including storming American soil and holding 52 hostages for 444 days, murdering 252 American Marines on a peacekeeping mission, and is apparently now aiding people trying to kill American soldiers in Iraq.

    Certainly, if I were confident that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would do the trick, I’d be on board, even if it meant killing every one of their nuclear scientists. I just don’t think, as I’ve written numerous times over the past several months, that it’s feasible.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Just for the sake of argument let’s suppose that all of the claims made in the presentation by the military yesterday are absolutely, positively correct. The claims were:

    1) Weapons from Iran are making their way to Iraqi militias and/or insurgents

    2) the weapons are being used against Americans

    3) the weapons are being distributed by the Revolutionary Guard Qods Force

    4) it’s being done under the direction of the highest levels of the Iranian government

    Just suppose.

    Is the most prudent course of action:

    a) file a complaint before the UNSC
    b) invade Iran
    c) bomb Iran
    d) arrest Iranians you find in Iraq distributing weapons but otherwise do nothing
    e) engage in covert action of your own against the Iranians

    It seems to me that a) and d) are the very least that we should do. I oppose b) and c). It seems to me that e) is not completely outrageous. I’d prefer targeting infrastructure to individuals, however.

  8. Steve Verdon says:

    Since *when* is an Iranian nuclear scientist in the same ballpark as Osama bin Laden?

    Let me see, a scientist in a country lead by a pretty whacked out person. A scientist building a weapon that could cause catastrophic loss of life and lead to the Middle East being the stage for nuclear weapons exchange. A scientist who may very well share an ideology similar to OBLs. Sorry, same ball park, same league, same sport.

    And Greenwald is being somewhat misleading and simply calling the Mullahs of Iran religious leaders. They also happen to be the ruling class and would probably be fairly happy tossing a nuke over at Israel or even the United States.

    We have a country whose official policy is to support terrorism in other countries. I just can’t muster the outrage that Greenwald seems to have.

  9. M1EK says:

    “Then again, the Iranian regime has been waging low level war on the United States since 1979, including storming American soil and holding 52 hostages for 444 days, murdering 252 American Marines on a peacekeeping mission, and is apparently now aiding people trying to kill American soldiers in Iraq.”

    The first justified declaring war, and I thought Carter should have done so.

    The second wasn’t direct action, and wasn’t any better or worse than us arming Saddam Hussein against them.

    The third is just more lies from the Bush crowd, which you’ve swallowed without challenge. The country needs a smart, responsible, Republican party to keep the paleoliberals from getting too much power, but all you want to do is keep trusting the same guys who screwed you over last time. When are you going to learn?

  10. LaurenceB says:

    This is not a rhetorical question –

    Am I mistaken or is it not true that Iran has consistently held that its atomic research is meant for peaceful means? In other words, has Iran admitted that it is working on a bomb, or is it the official position of Iran that its nuclear research is meant only to produce nuclear power?

    The answer to that question seems somewhat important if one is to take a position pro/contra on whether or not to assassinate scientists.

    Please excuse my ignorance. Thanks

  11. Bithead says:

    Still, this doesn’t strike me as “extremist and deranged.”

    Yeah, well, about that… You’re not a Democrat leaning Pundit desperately trying to be shrill enough to please his new readership.

    Typical Greenwald.

  12. Anderson says:

    Let me see, a scientist in a country lead by a pretty whacked out person. A scientist building a weapon that could cause catastrophic loss of life and lead to the Middle East being the stage for nuclear weapons exchange. A scientist who may very well share an ideology similar to OBLs. Sorry, same ball park, same league, same sport.

    Those criteria also justify Iran in murdering every American nuclear scientist it can get its paws on. Good thing Reynolds isn’t proposing to target Iranian economists for their support of the fiscal efforts necessary to build the Bomb. Eh, Steve?

  13. LaurenceB says:

    …A scientist who may very well share an ideology similar to OBLs…

    Steve,
    It seems much too convenient for you to assume that this soon-to-be-assassinated scientist shares Osama Bin Laden’s ideology. As a software developer, I’ve worked off and on for different defense-related projects over the years – I can’t name even one colleague during all that time who seemed to be developing military-related software out of a sense of political ideology.

    Just saying.

  14. Steve Verdon says:

    Those criteria also justify Iran in murdering every American nuclear scientist it can get its paws on.

    Uhhmmmm no. Bush is not talking about nuking anybody last I checked. Sure he is probably going to rate as a horrible President, but anti-semite, holocaust denier, and supporter or terrorism? I think he’ll get really, really low marks in those areas. Ahmadinejhad on the other hand will probably score really high and if they do get a working nuke, he might be the first national leader to pop a nuke since Truman.

    So I don’t see the equivalence here. Sorry.

    LaurenceB,

    A remedial reading course might be in order for you. I didn’t make any such assumption, but suggested the distinct possibility.

    I’m just saying.

  15. LaurenceB says:

    Ahhh… My bad.

    Then I suggest that you just “suggest the distinct possibility” that the scientist is a child molester. It’s a lot harder to object to killing nuclear scientists that are child molesters. And, after all, it’s a distinct possibility.

  16. Anderson says:

    Bush is not talking about nuking anybody last I checked.

    I suspect you don’t credit Sy Hersh’s reporting, but he says the Pentagon’s been instructed to look into the use of nukes vs. Iran’s nuclear program.

    As for “pretty whacked-out person,” that’s a good description of Cheney, & arguably of Bush.

  17. IIRC, we did have a shot at OBL a few years ago while General Franks was in charge, but delays in getting the lawyers to approve the shot in real time allowed him to get away.

  18. cas says:

    I’m trying to figure out how the DIRECT support of Hezb’allah by Iran should NOT be considered a direct act of war against the US. The Shia of Lebanon had little organization, terrorist or otherwise, before the Iranian Islamic Republic started organizing and funding them.
    The US is the only country to have ever used a nuclear weapon in war, against an enemy that had attacked us WITHOUT declaring war, and whose troops consistently refused to surrender, or recognize any other western-style rules of war (Japanese POW treatment? NOTHING like the Guantanamo “country club,” or even Abu Gharib). We used those nukes to AVOID having to invade the Japanese home islands, and prevent the death of thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) of our soldiers, and probably millions of Japanese civilians. Should we be considered immoral because of this? Our scientists still weren’t sure if those bombs would work correctly, despite the tests.
    If the collapse of the Iranian government means the prevention of an overall Middle East nuclear war, with the subsequent catastrophic loss of life, not to mention complete disruption of the world economy, would actions such as the assassination of these “religious”/ political officials be justified? I think regime change would be a more satisfactory answer to this crisis than would the targeting of Iranian physicists, who would be able to apply their research to the construction of nuclear power plants for Iran, once the current theocracy is removed. Or would the invasion of Iran be a better option? How about the destruction of several US or allied cities due to Iranian nuclear bombs?
    How long should we wait before attempting to assassinate the current generation’s version of Hitler / Stalin?

  19. carpeicthus says:

    There are some strong arguments to be made against political assassinations, especially against the likes of religious leaders and scientists, as well as for allowing the executive to conduct them unchecked by legislative oversight.

    Gee, ya think?

  20. Anderson says:

    IIRC, we did have a shot at OBL a few years ago while General Franks was in charge, but delays in getting the lawyers to approve the shot in real time allowed him to get away.

    Got a link? I can’t imagine that “lawyers” were involved after we invaded Afghanistan. Franks blew Tora Bora all by himself, w/out legal aid.

  21. Sorry, it was Mullah Omar rather than Osama bin Laden. But what’s worse, the source is Sy Hersh, and General Franks has denied it. I therefore retract my comment. My apologies.

    Google “Franks Hersh Mullah Omar” and you’ll get lots of links to the he said, she said, commentary, begining with Mr. Hersh’s article in the New Yorker.

  22. Sven says:

    Bush is not talking about nuking anybody last I checked.

    Check again.