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How Countries Decide To Kill Foreign Enemies


In his State of the Union address last night, President Trump described Iranian General Qassem Soleimani as a ruthless butcher, a monster and the world's top terrorist.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And that's why last month at my direction, the U.S. military executed a flawless precision strike that killed Soleimani and terminated his evil reign of terror forever.

KELLY: A flawless precision strike the words the president used there. He did not use the word assassination. How and when nations decide to kill is a matter fraught with legal and ethical quandaries, quandaries that Evan Osnos explores in a new article in The New Yorker. Evan Osnos is here now.

Hello again.

EVAN OSNOS: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Start with these very carefully chosen words that the president used - precision strike. I also, when I interview U.S. officials, hear them talking about similar operations as targeted killings.

OSNOS: Right.

KELLY: They do not ever want to use the word assassination. Why not? What's the distinction they are trying to draw?

OSNOS: They're being careful not to use the word assassination because it has been prohibited by executive order since 1976. Gerald Ford was the first president to impose a prohibition against assassinations, Ronald Reagan extended it. And as a result, when these kinds of lethal operations have become more common, the United States has been careful to call them targeted killings.

KELLY: In practice, is there a distinction?

OSNOS: No. In practice, the distinction has more or less eroded. And that's partly because what the U.S. government would say is that the distinction between peace time and war time has eroded. So the distinction between what is a targeted killing or an assassination no longer makes as much sense in practice as it might have 50 or 60 years ago.

KELLY: OK. So legally speaking, whatever you call it, was the drone strike on Qassem Soleimani - was it legal?

OSNOS: That's a hotly debated question. John Brennan, former CIA director, told us for this piece that he believes it was illegal because, in his view, this violated American law against a lethal operation against a representative of a foreign government with whom we are not at war. And this is a key point. The United States, of course, accuses Iran of heavy involvement in terrorist activities. But we are not in a conventional war with Iran. And as a result, this does not satisfy the conventional definition of a battlefield killing.

KELLY: And what is the case that the Trump administration has made?

OSNOS: The Trump administration argues that, in effect, the United States has been at war, whether we acknowledge it or not, with Iran since 1979.

KELLY: Since the revolution in Iran and hostages were taken and diplomatic ties were cut.

OSNOS: Exactly. And that view, which really has sort of grown in influence within the administration over the last three years, has come to become a very important part of how they see this growing tension and conflict with Iran.

KELLY: You also hit on another important point, which is the U.S. and many other countries apply different rules to people they consider terrorists than they would to an official in a foreign government. And in the case of Qassem Soleimani, that's complicated.

OSNOS: That's true. The U.S. government would say that he, in some sense, filled two roles. He was a major general in their national security system, arguably one of the most powerful people in the country. The U.S. government would also say that Qassem Soleimani oversaw, in effect, a terrorist network, a series of proxy militias across the Middle East. And for that reason, they say that he was eligible for this kind of targeted killing.

KELLY: I should note - Iran does the same thing. I was in Tehran last month when the Parliament there voted unanimously to designate the Pentagon and the entire U.S. military a terrorist organization, thereby making them legitimate targets. So this cuts two ways.

OSNOS: And that is the big concern among some American military and intelligence officials is that by crossing this threshold and attacking somebody who is a sitting representative of a sovereign government, that we have, in effect, made our own members of the national security system fair game, and that they could be at risk of this kind of assassination in the future.

KELLY: But is this something started by the Trump administration? I mean, we saw targeted killings under President Obama. We've seen them under the Bush administration.

OSNOS: That's right. It really began after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And since then, the Bush administration, then the Obama administration and now the Trump administration have all accelerated the frequency of these kinds of attacks to the point that they've become a real sort of drumbeat in this era of American military and intelligence activity.

KELLY: Your article almost suggests we are in an era of assassination now, not just by the U.S. but other countries, too.

OSNOS: It's true. It's become, as somebody said to us in this reporting, something that used to be quite extraordinary has become almost ordinary.

KELLY: That's Evan Osnos. His New Yorker piece, co-written with Adam Entous, is titled "Qassem Suleimani And How Nations Decide To Kill" (ph).

Evan, thanks very much.

OSNOS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.