It’s one of the most memorable scenes in Apocalypse Now. Martin Sheen’s Green Beret captain is being briefed on his mission to find Col. Walter Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. “He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct,” a general tells the captain. A civilian spook then gives him a coded order: “Terminate with extreme prejudice.”
The line was no Hollywood creation but a euphemism that came to light in 1969, after a group of real Army Green Berets murdered a suspected Vietnamese double agent. The phrase, some of the soldiers said, was the CIA’s suggestion to them on dealing with the supposed turncoat.
Today, the preferred line for assassination is “targeted killing,” as in Greg Miller’s recent Washington Post exposé revealing that CIA and special operations forces have launched “a secret campaign to hunt terrorism suspects in Syria as part of a targeted killing program.”
How — or if — killing a human with a remote-controlled flying robot differs from, say, a Green Beret killing a rogue colonel, has been discussed and debated for years now. “If it’s premeditated assassination, why call it a ‘targeted killing?’” wrote Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’ public editor, in 2013, channeling some of the complaints she received from readers.
Scott Shane, a Times national security reporter, had a ready answer: The Obama administration decreed it. He explained that since assassination is banned by executive order, using the term would indicate the administration is deliberately violating the ban. “This administration, like others, just doesn’t think the executive order applies,” he wrote to Sullivan. He crossed off the term “murder” for similar reasons. “This leaves ‘targeted killing,’ which I think is far from a euphemism,” Shane continued. “It denotes exactly what’s happening: American drone operators aim at people on the ground and fire missiles at them. I think it’s a pretty good term for what’s happening, if a bit clinical.”
But is there, beyond the administration’s self-interested rationale, a good reason for the Times and other news outlets (including, on occasion, The Intercept) to dump a perfectly effective word like assassination for a more “clinical” phrase — especially when assassination has such a long history of use by the Times and other news organizations?
“Assassination” was first used in the Times in 1851 and saw its first major spike in 1865 (512 uses), the year President Lincoln was gunned down, before peaking in 1968 (1,087 uses). “Targeted killing” didn’t appear in the newspaper until a 1988 article that touches on violence by Central American regimes against leftist guerillas and their sympathizers. The phrase didn’t break double digits until its 12 uses in 2010, including an article concerning President Obama signing a “secret order authorizing the targeted killing” of U.S.-born cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, and one titled “Semantic Minefields,” by the public editor at the time, Clark Hoyt, who mentioned the outcry over the phrase (Shane is quoted in that story, too). The phrase would be used 19 times in 2011, a number of the articles focused on the killing of Al-Awlaki; 33 times in 2012; peaking in 2013 with 78 uses; dipping down to 28 in 2014; with 17 so far this year.
About a month after Sullivan’s 2013 article, President Obama gave a speech on counterterrorism policy. “The United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones,” he said. The president likened a suspected terrorist to “a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd,” but didn’t explain how his use of a drone to shoot down someone never found guilty of any crime in a court of law was different.
I went to the government with the question of how “targeted killing” or “lethal, targeted action” differs from assassination. Ken McGraw, a spokesperson at U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees one of the two agencies reportedly involved in the new effort in Syria, told me, “I don’t recall ever hearing those terms used in USSOCOM headquarters.” When I took the question to the White House’s National Security Council, spokesperson Peter Boogaard suggested I consult then-State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh’s March 2010 speech on international law and counterterrorism operations.
In the speech, Koh noted that “some have argued that our targeting practices violate … 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.’”
It was an interesting point given what we now know about the use of so-called signature strikes in which the U.S. government does not know exactly who it is killing, only that the targets appear to be militants. Since these strikes were not “precision targeting of specific high-level belligerent leaders,” I suggested to Boogaard that, by Koh’s reasoning, they might be assassinations and, by similar logic, what Koh also termed “unlawful extrajudicial killing.”
“Will see if there is more we can discuss,” Boogaard replied via email. That was the last I heard from him despite repeated follow-ups.
Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies drone strikes, points out the government will develop legal justifications for any use of force the president decides upon. “I don’t particularly care how you describe it,” he says of targeted killing. “But I certainly understand why people have concerns about how it’s categorized. Words do matter.”
Should we criticize journalists, like those at the New York Times and Washington Post, for adopting euphemisms or watered-down language?
Zenko praised the work of investigative reporters and specifically mentioned Shane and Miller, noting that without them we would know little beyond the administration’s talking points. But with so much of the program shrouded in secrecy and strikes conducted in such distant locations, there are “a lot of points between you and reality,” as Zenko puts it. “When there’s a huge information gap, even really good national security and intelligence journalists become more reliant on sources within government. When you’re more reliant upon those sources, you might be more likely to adhere to — or at least make a case for why they use — the language and justifications that they do.”