The drone strike that killed the Iranian general is the legacy of two decades of secret legal opinions aimed at circumventing the U.S. assassination ban.
Donald Trump has dragged America into a moral abyss. And yet Congress, the press, and the public are unwilling to admit that we are now standing in blood. The nation is enabling a murderous demagogue, and we are all complicit.
The president of the United States has murdered a high-ranking official of a foreign government. The assassination last week of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani was a state-sponsored murder.
But no one in the Washington establishment seems prepared to come out and say the hard truth: Donald Trump is a murderer.
This criminal moment has been a long time coming.
The United States has an assassination ban. The ban was put in place following disclosures by the Church Committee in the 1970s, which revealed that the CIA had secretly attempted to kill a series of foreign leaders, most notably Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
At the time of the Senate committee’s investigation, no one in the American government or media publicly defended assassination as a tool of a modern nation-state. It was simply not the accepted practice of a democracy that wanted to serve as a role model for the world.
But 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.
For the last two decades, both Republican and Democratic presidents have worked quietly to skirt the assassination ban in order to take advantage of new aviation, missile guidance, and surveillance technologies to find and kill individuals all over the world. To launch targeted killings without violating the assassination ban, presidents have counted on compliant government lawyers to issue secret legal opinions that rubber-stamped their actions.
The Clinton administration started this process in 1998, in the wake of the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa by Al Qaeda. In response, the White House decided to launch cruise missile strikes against what they claimed were terrorist training camps near Khost, Afghanistan. The primary target was Osama bin Laden.
At the time, I was covering national security and intelligence for the New York Times. I asked White House officials whether the action had violated the assassination ban. They responded that it had not because the target was the “command and control infrastructure” of Al Qaeda. When I asked them what they meant by “command and control infrastructure,” they reluctantly admitted that the “command and control infrastructure” of Al Qaeda was its leadership, meaning bin Laden. I realized that the Clinton administration’s lawyers had prepared a euphemism-laden opinion to provide legal cover for Bill Clinton and his advisers. That was the beginning of what has become a very long pattern.
After 9/11, political concerns about the assassination ban went by the boards because there was such overwhelming public support for the new, so-called global war on terror. But the government’s lawyers still worried about the assassination ban and other rules and regulations governing the use of state-sponsored violence.
That’s why the congressional legislation known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force has been so important to government lawyers. The AUMF, passed by Congress just days after 9/11, has provided the basic legal authorization for counterterrorism strikes ever since.
Armed with the AUMF and other legal backstops, the Bush and Obama administrations began to kill at will. The killing has never stopped. It has been a vicious campaign that has claimed countless innocent lives, destabilized nations, and been almost entirely counterproductive. It has made Americans numb to endless war.
But the United States gained public and legal support for targeted killings only for what it described as the asymmetric fight against terrorism. It targeted suspected terrorists: “non-state actors.”
That is where Trump has now crossed a clear line. He conducted a drone strike to murder the official who served as Iran’s viceroy in Iraq. Qassim Suleimani was most definitely not a “non-state actor.”
Suleimani was the head of the Quds Force, the elite external operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which operated with impunity throughout Iraq under his leadership. He ran Iran’s ground campaign against ISIS in Iraq, in parallel to the American air campaign, and employed Shia militias and their ruthless tactics to defeat the cult-like group. The United States has been happy to take credit for the victory over ISIS in Iraq, without admitting that it relied heavily upon Suleimani’s horrific paramilitary actions and his strategic acumen.
But he was much more than a special forces commander or spymaster; he was Iran’s most important envoy, and he served as Tehran’s intimidating political fixer throughout the Middle East.
He dominated the political landscape in Baghdad. In November, The Intercept and the New York Times reported on leaked Iranian intelligence cables that publicly documented Iran’s deep influence in Iraq from Iran’s perspective for the first time. What jumped off the pages in the leaked cables was Suleimani’s personal political power in Iraq and his hold on many of Iraq’s top political, military, and security officials.
Last October, Suleimani intervened at the highest levels of Iraqi politics to keep Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi in office amid massive protests and calls for his resignation. American officials serving in Iraq always thought they heard Suleimani’s footsteps.
In April 2019, the Trump administration designated the Revolutionary Guards, and Suleimani’s Quds Force, terrorist organizations. It was the first time the United States had ever designated a unit of another government a terrorist group.
At the time, the long-debated action was broadly portrayed as just another step in Trump’s reckless campaign to ratchet up economic sanctions on Iran and Iranian leaders. But I believe that the terrorist designation was Suleimani’s death warrant. I would not be surprised if the drone strike against Suleimani was supported by a secret legal opinion claiming that since he was the leader of a designated terrorist organization, he was a legitimate target in the war on terror under the AUMF and other counterterrorism legal guidelines. I’m sure that the lawyers at the National Security Council, the White House, and the Justice Department are sleeping well, knowing that they found a quick legal fix to allow Donald Trump to murder a foreign government official.
If we had a real Congress, there would be a congressional investigation into whatever lame, paper-thin legal rationalizations have been written by government lawyers to back up this murder. Instead, we are left with the nagging realization that Trump has just found a new loophole to circumvent the assassination ban.
But such actions prompt responses. Iran’s parliament has passed a bill designating all U.S. military forces terrorists.
The threat of retaliation has always been one of the most potent arguments against the use of assassination as a national security tool: It can prompt other countries to target Americans for assassination. And if international strictures against assassination are eliminated, we will be one step closer to the abandonment of the laws of war.