STANFORD — Early this month, six men driving in Marib province, Yemen, died when a CIA drone fired a Hellfire missile into their car. Bush administration officials say that one of the men was Qaed Sinan Harithi, suspected of involvement in the October 2000 bombing of the destroyer Cole, which killed 17 American sailors. The White House described the other five men as low-level operatives in Al Qaeda. One of them, it turns out, was a U.S. citizen.
The incident in Yemen wasn't the first time in the war on terrorism that the Bush administration has assassinated people it considers "enemy combatants." But it is the first time it has done so outside Afghanistan; it is the first time it has done so in a country with which the U.S. is not at war; and it is the first time it has assassinated a U.S. citizen.
This signals a dangerous and unethical shift in U.S. policy and underscores the hypocrisy of the administration's stance on democratic norms. It also undermines Americans' safety both at home and abroad.
The target was clearly Harithi, a man Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld referred to after the killing as "a suspected terrorist connected to the USS Cole." He was suspected of terrorist crimes, but he had not been charged -- much less convicted -- in any court of law. Neither had the other five, at least one of whom was entitled to U.S. constitutional protections.
Three days after Sept. 11, 2001, Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing President Bush "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks." The resolution failed to place adequate safeguards on the power granted to the president. The Bush administration subsequently held hundreds of people indefinitely, without charge.
The White House refused to apply the Geneva conventions to prisoners and replaced the U.S. judicial system with military tribunals, claiming that due process did not apply to suspected terrorists. Now, the administration appears to be interpreting the resolution as a license to kill.
In October 2001, the Bush administration issued a presidential finding that grants the CIA power to engage in "lethal covert operations" to eliminate Al Qaeda.
On the surface, this violates Executive Order 12333, put into place by President Gerald R. Ford and renewed by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The order states unequivocally: "No employee of the U.S. government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination." The White House claims that the order doesn't apply to wartime or to individuals with the newly minted enemy-combatant status, just as it didn't apply to enemy soldiers killed in previous wars.
But we aren't at war with Yemen. We are at war with a method, which is something much more amorphous. Reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress gave the Bush administration the power to determine who is a terrorist and to go after him anywhere in the world. The administration claims that Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which allows for self-defense, further justifies its position. The intent of Article 51, however, was to repel an immediate threat or direct invasion. It would be hard to prove that six men traveling in a car in Yemen represent an imminent threat to the United States.
How can America claim to be a great protector of human rights and engage in extrajudicial assassinations? On Nov. 4, the day after the assassination, President Bush denounced Al Qaeda as "international killers." A State Department spokesman then announced, "Our policy on targeted killings in the Israeli-Palestinian context has not changed." The United States cannot live by the standards it condemns.
The assassination raises important moral questions. Is it better for one, or, in this case, six enemy combatants to die, their guilt unproved, than for American soldiers' or citizens' lives to be placed at risk? The utilitarian argument that might allow this ignores the central importance of individual rights -- rights that form the basis of our political structure.
If we suppose that we are at war, then the tradition of "just war" demands that the force we employ must be "discriminate," providing immunity for innocents wherever possible. And it must be proportional to our ends. Some might argue that assassination is discriminate, since the target is specific, and that this sets it apart from terrorism, which is "indiscriminate murder." But this argument depends upon what is considered a "legitimate" target -- a definition set by those engaging in the act itself. In terms of proportionality, was the murder of six people proportional to the suspicion of the guilt of one?