Jonathan P. Baird: Assassination is a legal and moral abyss

  • On Jan. 4, protesters in Tehran, Iran, demonstrate over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 2/9/2020 6:30:17 AM

President Donald Trump’s disrespect for the law has never been on greater display than in the state-sponsored murder of Qassem Soleimani, a high-ranking official of the Iranian government.

The U.S. military killed Soleimani in a drone strike on Jan. 3.

While not an exact comparison, Soleimani held a position in Iran equivalent to Vice President Mike Pence or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was not a rogue terrorist or even someone like Osama bin Laden. While he had plenty of blood on his hands, that does not change the fact Soleimani, as an Iranian military commander, was a high-level state actor.

You might not know it from much of the media coverage of the event, but political assassinations like the hit on Soleimani are against the law. There is a legal ban on assassinations going back to the 1970s.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed an executive order banning “political assassinations.” This came in the aftermath of the Church Committee investigation, which revealed the CIA had attempted to kill a number of foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro.

President Jimmy Carter strengthened the assassination ban in his own executive order by extending it to include “persons employed by or acting on behalf of the United States.”

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan issued a new executive order that remains the law of the land today. Executive Order 12333 states: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”

In addition to the executive orders, assassination runs afoul of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution and well-established international law, including the 1907 Hague Convention and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Unfortunately, since the 1990s there has been a long pattern of skirting the assassination ban when targets have been classified as under the umbrella of terrorism. This has gone on with both Republicans and Democrats. The U.S. Congress has never legislated the issue of assassination.

The journalist James Risen explains the evolution this way: “The reform-minded 1970s now seem quaint in a nation whose greatest military innovation in the 21st century has been the targeted killing of individuals by remote control.”

Risen writes that the explosion of technology – new aviation, missile guidance and surveillance monitoring – has been an irresistible lure for both parties’ political leaders. Both Republican and Democratic presidents have developed kill lists. They can always count on compliant government lawyers who issue secret legal opinions that justify their killings. This has been true with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Obama paved the way for Trump with his drone-based killings of individuals deemed a threat to national security.

Under current law, Trump had no right to order the killing of one of the highest ranking military leaders of a foreign state with which the U.S. was not at war. While Trump had campaigned on an attitude of belligerence toward Iran and opposition to the nuclear deal made by Obama, as a matter of international law, the United States has not been engaged in an ongoing armed conflict with Iran.

There is no justification for assassinating foreign officials, including Soleimani. Regardless of his changing litany of self-justifying reasons, Trump’s ordered murder was an aggressive act of war. Imagine if Iran had assassinated Vice President Pence. The reaction would have been extreme.

There was initially some effort made by Trump administration officials to say that Soleimani’s killing prevented an imminent attack on American interests. In his most recent explanations for the murder, Trump himself undermined the idea that Soleimani posed an imminent threat to U.S. interests or embassies.

According to audio obtained by CNN and the Washington Post, on Jan. 17 Trump told his campaign donors at his Mar-a-Lago resort that Soleimani “was saying bad things about our country.” Earlier in the week, Trump tweeted “it doesn’t really matter” whether Soleimani posed an imminent threat to the United States “because of his horrible past.”

Ironically, Soleimani was widely credited with significantly contributing to the defeat of ISIS in Iraq.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote that political speech and writing are “largely the defense of the indefensible.” Orwell said political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

You can call it an “extrajudicial execution” or a “targeted killing” or some other euphemism but murder remains murder. It is a violation of the human right to life enshrined in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United States ratified this human rights covenant in 1992. It is a party to the covenant

Assassination can be a two-way street. The murder of Soleimani sets a dangerous precedent. Other states may decide to follow our example. Reducing the taboo on assassination could produce blowback.

It is little known but Congress could have taken steps to prevent actions like the Soleimani assassination. In 2019, California Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna offered an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have prohibited offensive actions like the Soleimani assassination. Congress removed Khanna’s amendment from the final bill.

Along with Republicans, too many Democrats have given Trump a blank check on military action. There should be congressional investigation into the ever-changing, shallow justifications offered by the Trump administration to support the Soleimani assassination. They have needlessly and recklessly brought us to the brink of war.

We were misled into Vietnam and Iraq by lies. Now another administration is lying about imminent threats posed by a Middle Eastern country. We have traveled this road before and the results have not just been tragic, they have been horrifying.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at

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