Photo: Pete Souza/The White House/AP
At various points in his career, Joe Biden expressed hesitance about U.S. global assassination programs. In 1998, during a Senate debate about the possibility of greenlighting assassinations of terrorist leaders, Biden was reticent, telling FBI Director Louis Freeh that he “would very much like a legal memorandum from the FBI, stating whether or not the prohibition against assassination of heads of state applies to organized crime units, and/or terrorist units.”
During a 1998 TV appearance, he was asked why, instead of launching cruise missiles at Afghanistan, the U.S. did not conduct a surgical mission to kill Osama bin Laden. “It’s against American law to assassinate,” Biden shot back. Biden was not technically correct. While every president since Gerald Ford has maintained an executive order prohibiting assassination, Congress has intentionally never legislated such a ban.
While every president since Gerald Ford has maintained an executive order prohibiting assassination, Congress has intentionally never legislated such a ban.
Congress’s failure to take a stance has allowed several presidents to conduct assassinations while framing them as justifiable and lawful, most prominently President Barack Obama through his targeted killing drone strike campaigns.
In 2009, as Obama’s vice president, Biden reportedly authorized a short paper that promoted a “counterterrorism plus” strategy for fighting Al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, supporting drones and special forces raids as a primary means of carrying out war in the region. Biden was a noted skeptic of proposals from U.S. generals to ramp up large-footprint deployments of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Biden opposed the 2011 raid authorized by Obama to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, expressing reservations at the time about the odds of success. He later praised the raid, saying, “You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan.” He also opposed President Donald Trump’s assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani. Biden did not cite the illegality of the strike but rather labeled it a “self-defeating” action that he said would make the region more dangerous in the long term.