Assassination and the Koh Speech

Assassination and the Koh Speech

Toward the end of the section on drone warfare in Legal Adviser Koh’s March 25, 2010 speech to ASIL is a discussion that runs to US domestic law and regulation.  For the first time in a very long time — it might be since Koh’s predecessor Abe Sofaer addressed the question in a 1989 speech — the meaning of “assassination” in US law and regulation has been addressed in an authoritative and considered way by a senior US government lawyer.  Legal Adviser Koh said with respect to “assassination”:

[S]ome have argued that our targeting practices violate domestic law, in particular, the long-standing domestic ban on assassinations. But under domestic law, the use of lawful weapons systems—consistent with the applicable laws of war—for precision targeting of specific high-level belligerent leaders when acting in self-defense or during an armed conflict is not unlawful, and hence does not constitute “assassination.”

To refresh on the background to this.  Apart from questions of international law, the US has had a domestic ban on “assassination” in the form of an executive order that has been in place (or renewed in slightly different language) since the presidency of Gerald Ford.  In 1976, in the wake of revelations of CIA activities in the Church Committee hearings, President Ford issued EO 11905, the single relevant sentence of which read:  “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.”  President Carter reissued the order in 1978 in slightly different language in EO 12036, which read in relevant part:  “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”  President Reagan reissued the order in 1981 using identical language in EO 12333:  “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”  EO 12333 was amended by subsequent EO’s, but the specific assassination ban text remains unchanged.

That said, the term “assassination” is never defined.  Whole forests have fallen as commentators, in law reviews and elsewhere, have debated its meaning over decades, however.  Does it refer to political leaders?  To whom does it apply or not apply?  Non-state actors?  Terrorist groups?  Political leaders of states with which the United States is at war?  Military-political leaders of such states (given how frequently that is the case)?  There is little material in the record as to what was intended — and perhaps not surprisingly.  What little anecdotal information exists from the EO’s issuance in the 1970s suggests that it was intended as a way of placating Congress, and avoiding an actual statutory ban.  The EO was apparently intended to be vague and undefined, and subsequent presidents — and, note, Congresses — have found that to be a useful ambiguity in which to leave it.  It has the status of a binding executive order in domestic law — and amendable, alterable, and revocable should the President want to do it.

I’ve never understood, to be frank, the scholarly agonizing around a single sentence with a wholly undefined term in an order not, and never, codified as a statute.  It defies interpretive settlement, I would have thought, precisely because it was not designed to bear any real legal weight.  It was instead merely a declaration in vague and general terms that whatever wicked killings the CIA did that were revealed in the Church hearings, those would not happen any more, a mea culpa and promise not to do some ill-defined bad things any more.  Well and good — the CIA did some bad and wicked things — but beyond that, one is not really going to get by textual interpretation.  Unsurprisingly, much of the commentary uses the interpretive discussion as a way of launching a normative view of when and what should be acceptable in the way of targeted killing.

The essentially normative launching pad of which much of the commentary consists is reinforced by the observation that US officials did offer two senior commentaries on the meaning of the ban in the late 1980s.  One was offered by senior law of war Department of Defense lawyer Hays Parks in a 1989 memorandum of law.  The conclusion of that memorandum, with respect to the use of military forces of the Department of Defense:

Assassination constitutes an act of murder that is prohibited by international law and Executive Order 12333. The purpose of Executive Order 1233 and its predecessors was to preclude unilateral actions by individual agents or agencies against selected foreign public officials, and to establish beyond any doubt that the United States does not condone assassination as an instrument of national policy. Its intent was not to limit lawful self defense options against legitimate threats to the national security of the United States or individual U.S. citizens. Acting consistent with the Charter of the United Nations, a decision by the President to employ clandestine, low visibility or overt military force would not constitute assassination if U.S. military forces were employed against the combatant forces of another nation, a guerrilla force, or a terrorist or other organization whose actions pose a threat to the security of the United States.

This analysis (or at least this particular concluding passage) is not explicit as to whether the act in question is murder because it is assassination and therefore unlawful, or whether it is assassination because it is murder and therefore unlawful.  In 1989, then Legal Adviser to the DOS, Abraham Sofaer, made a speech at the US Army JAG school in Charlottesville, Virginia, that spoke to this underlying issue of what is the predicate, independent violation of law, murder as such or assassination on grounds independent of murder:

The meaning of the term “assassination”’ in historical context, and in the light of its usage in the laws of war, is, simply, any unlawful killing of particular individuals for political purposes … virtually all available definitions of “assassination”’ include the word “murder,”’ which in law is a word of art. Murder is a crime, the most serious form of criminal homicide. That element is the most fundamental aspect of the assassination prohibition. All criminal killing is therefore potentially subject to the prohibition.

Under no circumstances, however, should assassination be defined to include any lawful homicide. Assassination is also commonly defined as killing with a political purpose. Murders that have no political purpose or context are criminal and remain subject to punishment, but these too should not be characterized as assassinations. Other elements offered in available definitions seem superfluous or even misleading. Thus, for example, whether a killing is done “secretly”’ or “treacherously”’ and whether the person is “prominent”’ would appear to be of little or no consequence for purposes of the Executive Order. Nor should it matter that the assassin “kills in the belief that he is acting in his own private or public interest”’ or whether the action is “surprising”’ or “secret.”  The pivotal elements in terms of controlling the behavior of government officials would seem to be illegality and political purpose … the historical background of the term casts considerable light on its meaning and strongly supports a definition limited to illegal, politically motivated killing.

The assassination ban, on this reading, argues that in order to be an assassination, the killing must already be unlawful on some independent ground — because it is murder, for example, or cannot be justified under international law of self-defense.  The result is that the ban on assassination becomes coincident with killing that would be unlawful under domestic or international law in any case.  The assassination ban does not include lawful acts of self-defense.

Consider again the Koh speech on this topic.  It too emphasizes that the ban is to be understood as not including lawful self-defense:

[U]nder domestic law, the use of lawful weapons systems—consistent with the applicable laws of war—for precision targeting of specific high-level belligerent leaders when acting in self-defense or during an armed conflict is not unlawful, and hence does not constitute “assassination.” (Emphasis added.)

This is one of several places in which the Koh address specifically distinguishes “self-defense” from “armed conflict.”  It expresses a view that when acting in lawful self-defense (which might or might not be “armed conflict” in a specifically legal sense of that term), targeting specific high-level belligerent leaders is not (independently) unlawful,and because it is not, it thus does not constitute “assassination.”

This is very significant, for at least two reasons.  One is that this reasoning adopts, as premise about international law, that there is a distinction between self-defense and armed conflict.  This is not the only place that the speech does so.  It specifically holds out that the possibility that there can be acts of self-defense separate from acts of armed conflict (I would say, though this particular passage does not, that lawful armed conflict is a subset of lawful self-defense).

Second, more centrally:  It clarifies, by essentially restating and reaffirming a legal view of the US government. one not re-stated (at least not plainly or very often, if at all, so far as I can tell) on both self-defense in international law and assassination in domestic law, dating back to the 1980s.  If the importance of the implication of the international law premise (the self-defense premise) is clear, however, why do I suggest that the domestic law interpretation of the assassination ban is also so significant? After all, it’s merely an executive order, alterable by a president at any time.

The reason I place such significance on this domestic law interpretation is practical.  Outsiders to government like me do not have much information on the thinking during the last two decades about targeted killing and assassination, including 1990s arguments over targeting Bin Laden and others.  Certainly I am not privy to any special information.  However, there is a reference to an OLC opinion from the 1990s, referenced in the 9/11 Commission report, about concerns that in order to avoid possible violation of the assassination ban, it was necessary to conclude that Bin Laden was a combatant, and therefore a target.  Otherwise — quite apart from any international law considerations — targeting him might contravene the assassination ban.

This led, so far as an outsider like me can tell, to push the US government, as it became aware of the Al Qaeda threat in the 1990s, to regard its actions as having to satisfy the requirements of combatancy, and not to assert any genuinely independent grounds of self-defense as a basis for targeting.  As I have argued at great length elsewhere, the collapse of the use of force into a binary consisting of law enforcement or armed conflict deprived the United States of recourse to the most useful and most obvious category of use of force — self-defense at minimal, targeted, discrete levels of violence that would not constitute a genuine legal armed conflict, using covert “intelligence” actors (or at least to accept constraints arising from a legal characterization of such intelligence uses of force that had to be based around the fundamentally armed conflict framing of combatancy).  Not an armed conflict because it would not be, paradoxically, violent, or intense, or sustained enough.  Which is, after all, what covert action is supposed to be, when successfully carried out as a use of force.

I believe that the precautionary legal view that the categories had to be either law enforcement or full-on armed conflict had an inhibiting effect on the effective use of force against Al Qaeda in the 1990s.  I can’t prove it or corroborate it; I’m not an insider in any sense.  However, I was always struck by a conversation with someone who was an insider in the 1990s; when I asked, sometime around 2004, why the insistence on establishing that someone was a “combatant” for purposes of targeting, the answer was immediate — “Oh, well, if we didn’t, we might be in violation of the assassination ban.”  No reference to a violation of international law — presumably because there was no ICC or courts of Spain or Baltasar Garzon in the mid-1990s — but a very real concern about US domestic law.

I won’t try to re-explain here why in my view it matters whether one appeals to combatancy as the legal frame, in an armed conflict, or the broader category of self-defense; it is discussed at length in this article, and for that matter I have raised it on Volokh and Opinio Juris (and the international law scholar Marko Milanovic has gravely disputed the self-defense argument at EJILTalk! blog).  Given the complete acceptance among the three branches of government that the United States is in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda — so that concepts of combatancy do apply — it would have been very easy merely to say, combatants in armed conflict can be targeted under international law, and targeting them does not violate the assassination ban.  Assuming that one takes a global view of the armed conflict (which, I should say, I do not, believing, as I do, that armed conflict with a non-state actor is limited to places of active, sustained, and intense hostilities, but leave that discussion for another post), one need not get into questions of self defense as an independent and broader category of the use of force.

The fact that this speech goes beyond armed conflict to the broader category of self defense speaks to the care that went into preparing this speech — with a view in mind of the needs of future presidents, facing future threats, and responsible for the safety of the United States of America in circumstances having nothing to do with Al Qaeda.  The Legal Adviser might have stopped merely with armed conflict, taking a narrow and presentist view that all that matters is Al Qaeda today, and not presidents tomorrow.  That he did not speaks highly of his long view of the presidency.  Because the law of self defense, while relevant today particularly to the use of force by the CIA, is most relevant to presidents stretching into the future.

But returning, finally, to assassination.  Yes, in my view, it matters a lot in a practical sense that officials of the CIA and other agencies are able to go about their business with considerably less concern that, quite apart from anything else, the one sentence concerning assassination in the EO might come back to haunt them as a matter of domestic law.  It’s not the end of the matter in a lawyerly sense, of course; memos need to be written, legal opinions given, and while I’m doubtful that the text of the EO would be modified to reflect this explicitly, that would be a good thing (it is possible that all of this has already happened inside government).  A single paragraph in a public speech does not take care of things all by itself.

Still, I think the Legal Adviser’s interpretation is correct, and I think it a matter of considerable significance that it so clearly draws upon a long-standing view within the US government, but one that had fallen (if this is not too strong a characterization) into a certain desuetude, at least to those of us outside of government.  Outsiders like me — and most readers — are not fully able to appreciate just how much work, digging, and evaluation of non-public legal memos, opinions, and reasoning dating back decades must necessarily go into what appears to be a simple conclusion in a couple of sentences.  The work behind it was, I’m certain, very substantial.

(Cross posted at VC.)

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Self-defense of who or what?  The United States?  And anyone the President thinks should be killed?  Including Americans overseas?

Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

How about persons who have information that shows up governmental malfeasance?  Is that self-defense of the United States to kill them?  Such as Al-Libi who committed “suicide” in a Libyan prison.

John C. Dehn


Thanks for the insights.  Your discussion would also explain what I recall was a passing reference by the Legal Advisor to the “imminence of the threat” in targeting.  Imminence of harm is obviously not relevant in armed conflict targeting.

Your explanation of the work being done by self defense makes sense in light of what we all think to be U.S. practice.  Perhaps our government does in fact attempt to claim that overseas CIA “hits” (in peace or war) are somehow justified by a notion of self defense.  A history of such claims by the Executive would also potentially explain a certain aspect of the torture memos regarding “defense of others” that I found to be curiously misplaced.

If you are right, I think the claim potentially dubious on a number of grounds, more than were asserted by Marko.

Thanks again for the post,


Howard Gilbert
Howard Gilbert

“believing, as I do, that armed conflict with a non-state actor is limited to places of active, sustained, and intense hostilities, but leave that discussion for another post” In anticipation of the other post, non-state actors typically do not have the resources to deploy armed forces world wide, but that is a matter of finance and not law. During the Civil War neither the US nor other governments recognized the CSA, but they had enough resources to, among other things, send the CSS Shenandoah on a round the world trip. If the enemy sends a sufficiently powerful force to attack you at some distance from their previous theater of combat, doesn’t the force itself create at state of armed conflict wherever it goes. If not, how many days do they have to be shooting at you and killing your people before the new theater has transitioned to “active, sustained, and intense hostilities” sufficient to allow you to fight back with lethal military force under the laws of war instead of general self defense? In a Mumbai styled attack by Taliban/al Qaeda against the US East Coast, the use of military force is clearly permitted by the AUMF and self defense.… Read more »


“it is an untrue position, when taken generally, that, by the law of nature or nations, a man may kill his enemy: he has only a right to kill him, in particular cases; in cases of absolute necessity, for self-defence; and it is plain this absolute necessity did not subsist, since the victor did not actually kill him, but made him prisoner.”

William Blackstone, Commentaries 1:411—13, 1765