An assassination is defined generally as: "to murder (a usually prominent person) by a sudden and/or secret attack, often for political reasons." Alternatively, assassination may be defined as "the act of deliberately killing someone, especially a public figure, usually for hire or for political reasons."
On December 4, 1981, President Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12333 on
“United States Intelligence Activities.” Section 2.11 of the order provides: “Prohibition on
Assassination. No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government
shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”
On Friday, September 14, 2001, both the House and the Senate passed joint resolutions,
S.J.Res. 23 and H.J.Res. 64, authorizing the President to “use all necessary and appropriate
force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized,
committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored
such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism
against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” In addition, the
“Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization
within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.”
Assassinations are unlawful killings. Here, for the reasons I have given, the U.S. government’s use of lethal force in self defense against a leader of al Qaeda or an associated force who presents an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful — and therefore would not violate the Executive Order banning assassination or criminal statutes.
Let me be clear: an operation using lethal force in a foreign country, targeted against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, would be lawful at least in the following circumstances: First, the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; second, capture is not feasible; and third, the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.
On August 1, the Deputies Committee met again to discuss the armed Predator. They concluded that it was legal for the CIA to kill Bin Ladin or one of his deputies with the Predator. Such strikes would be acts of self-defense and would not violate the ban on assassinations in Executive Order 12333.
Nov. 20, 1975: Senate Select Committee to study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Agencies (Church Committee) reported numerous CIA assassination attempts: Fidel Castro (Cuba) , Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic), and 2 others occurred during the Presidencies of Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon. Combined with Chilean revelations involving deaths of political and military leaders there (i.e., President Salvador Allende; Armed Forces Chief of Staff Rene Schneider) consensus in Congress to bar future such actions emerged.
February 18, 1976: Pres. Gerald Ford issued Executive Order 11905, a secret finding barring U.S. personnel from assassination plots. It stated: "5(g) Prohibition on Assassination. No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination."
Since 9/11, the US has increasingly talked about "targeted killings" to justify acts which might once have been called assassination. President Ford's ban on assassinations remains in force though, which helps explain why the US Attorney General Eric Holder was so keen to deny last month that killings carried out by unmanned drones in Pakistan and Yemen - countries with which it is not at war - were "assassinations".
"They are not, and the use of that loaded term is misplaced," he insisted.
The legal justification for "targeted killings" has been provided by broadening the notion of self-defence. It is now taken to mean protecting yourself from imminent attack and, more controversially, targeting any group which is planning an attack, even if you don't know when that might be.
The controversy over a covert CIA plan to assassinate senior al-Qaida leaders has devolved into a mass of unanswered questions and contradictory answers. The plan, as reported Tuesday by The New York Times and other news media, called for the formation of small teams to kill terrorist leaders abroad.
The plan reportedly was never fully carried out, and it remained secret, even from Congress, from its conception after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 until last month, when CIA director Leon Panetta announced that he was canceling it.