The implications of the assassination ban became an issue in Congress after the twin embassy bombings in Africa and the subsequent retaliation against Bin Laden, whom U.S. officials accuse of orchestrating the embassy attacks.
Several influential lawmakers representing both political parties have suggested a need to rethink the ban.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) recently called for its repeal, and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) has asked the Justice Department for a legal interpretation of its terms.
U.S. officials and analysts cite several explanations for the administration's murky public posture.
Any hint that the administration might be relaxing the ban could provoke an angry public response, here and abroad, from people who question whether attempts to kill an individual leader are consistent with the democratic tradition.
In addition, if foreign adversaries believe that the United States is coming after them, they might try to retaliate by killing U.S. officials--a substantial risk, in the view of some experts, because American leaders are far more accessible than those in most countries.
On the other hand, if the United States spelled out the precise limits of its ability to act, it might relieve the anxiety of foes like Bin Laden, whom it would prefer to keep in suspense.
"Think of the operational utility to terrorists . . . if the United States was forced to define more precisely what may or may not be done," one defense official said. "There is utility in leaving those areas gray, in terms of not tying our hands."
In any case, the administration has continued to shroud its views in legal fog.
On Oct. 13, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen was uncharacteristically explicit. He told U.S. troops at Eskan Village, Saudi Arabia, that the cruise missile attack in Afghanistan was intended to hit Bin Laden and his fellow militants.
"When we saw that Osama bin Laden carry out that bombing attack [in Africa], we sent a very strong message by going after his colleagues, and himself, hopefully, in Afghanistan," Cohen said. "We weren't quite successful . . . to hit as many [terrorists] as we wanted, but we sent a message."
A day later, however, administration spokesmen backtracked, arguing that Cohen had been attempting to present the administration's view that the terrorist camps themselves, rather than the leadership, had been the intended target.
Schenker, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, dismissed the conflicting statements as "double talk" intended to position the administration on the side of "the good actors" who do not carry out assassinations, even as it preserved its freedom of action.
"They want to cover all the possibilities," he said.