Does it come down to cost-benefit analysis?
Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) is going to trial in New York City per the Obama Administration and Holder Justice Department at some point of time in the future. If the US had known about his planning efforts toward the attack on September 11, 2001, would preemption by way of state sponsored assassination of KSM have been justified? Would it have been worth it to have removed Osama Bin Laden (OBL) in the same method?
I'm speaking of reading the tea leaves effectively and being able to proactively deal with a serious problem. There are some who argue that the United States should have assassinated Saddam Hussein rather than invading Iraq. The argument there was that nobody knew if the person who took his place would have been better or worse. We could have kept eliminating until we found somebody who wasn't as "bad" but that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of most people.
Assassinations that keep us out of a war (and vast loss of life and national treasure) on balance seem to be justified. By the same measure, assassinating Adolph Hitler in 1937 would have left the world much better off.
There is a high cost associated with planned political assassination. I'm not speaking of the actual operation and the expense of vetting intelligence and engaging in operational planning, direct action and escape/evasion following the killing. The POLITICAL cost of engaging in assassination as a matter of state sanctioned activity tends to make you a pariah. The Soviets and more recently the Russians found that out, even though they tend to be a pariah nation anyway -- so you can argue successfully that it doesn't cost them as much as it would the Americans, British, Japanese or any other nation which takes the moral high ground to its citizens and to the international community.
Which brings us inevitably to Israel, which has participated in state-sponsored assassination since before it was founded in 1947 with the Partition of Palestine. The Irgun (Irgun Tsvai-Leumi) and Stern Gang historically and the MOSSAD in more recent times acted as the tip of the spear for Israeli assassinations. One difference between Israel and other nations is that the MOSSAD usually wants their enemies to know (Hamas as a recent example) who pulled the trigger. MOSSAD also has a habit of planning and green-lighting the target themselves without prime ministerial approval - the PM could loose heart and change his/her mind even after the order is granted... Israel is not out to win popularity contests, and much like the Russians, they look for success first. Israel has a better position in the West than the Russians do and a lot of what they have done has been 'overlooked' up to and including situations such as the attack on the USS Liberty in 1967.
Arab nation-states such as the PLO have engaged in both targeted and many random planned political murders (blowing up school busses as well as targeted killings such as the assassination of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Bob Baer (author and former intelligence official) comments on the January 20, 2010 assassination of Hamas shot caller Mahmoud al-Mabhouh:
Nearly the entire hit was recorded on closed-circuit TV cameras, from the time the team arrived at Dubai's airport to the time the assassins entered Mr. Mabhouh's room. The cameras even caught team members before and after they donned their disguises. The only thing the Dubai authorities have been unable to discover is the true names of the team. But having identified the assassins, or at least the borrowed identities they traveled on, Dubai felt confident enough to point a finger at Israel. (Oddly enough several of the identities were stolen from people living in Israel.)
Dubai had on its side motivation—Mr. Mabhouh had plotted the kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers and reportedly played a role in the smuggling of Iranian arms into Gaza. And none of this is to mention that the Mabhouh assassination had all the hallmarks of an Israeli hit: a large team, composed of men and women, and an almost flawless execution. If it had been a Russian hit, for instance, they would have used a pistol or a car bomb, indifferent to the chaos left behind.
After Dubai released the tapes, the narrative quickly became that the assassination was an embarrassing blunder for Tel Aviv. Mossad failed spectacularly to assassinate a Hamas official in Amman in 1997— the poison that was used acted too slowly and the man survived—and it looks like the agency is not much better today. Why were so many people involved? (The latest report is that there were 26 members of the team.) Why were identities stolen from people living in Israel? Why didn't they just kill Mr. Mabhouh in a dark alley, one assassin with a pistol with a silencer? Or why at least didn't they all cover their faces with baseball caps so that the closed-circuit TV cameras did not have a clean view?
The truth is that Mr. Mabhouh's assassination was conducted according to the book—a military operation in which the environment is completely controlled by the assassins. At least 25 people are needed to carry off something like this. You need "eyes on" the target 24 hours a day to ensure that when the time comes he is alone. You need coverage of the police—assassinations go very wrong when the police stumble into the middle of one. You need coverage of the hotel security staff, the maids, the outside of the hotel. You even need people in back-up accommodations in the event the team needs a place to hide.
I can only speculate about where exactly the hit went wrong. But I would guess the assassins failed to account for the marked advance in technology. Not only were there closed-circuit TV cameras in the hotel where Mr. Mabhouh was assassinated and at the airport, but Dubai has at its fingertips the best security consultants in the world. The consultants merely had to run advanced software through all of Dubai's digital data before, during and after the assassination to connect the assassins in time and place. For instance, a search of all cellular phone calls made in and around the hotel where Mr. Mabhouh was assassinated would show who had called the same number—reportedly a command post in Vienna. It would only be a matter then of tracking when and where calls were made from these phones, tying them to hotels where the team was operating or staying.
Not completely understanding advances in technology may be one explanation for the assassins nonchalantly exposing their faces to the closed-circuit TV cameras, one female assassin even smiling at one. They mistook Dubai 2010 for Paris 1992, and never thought it would all be tied together in a neat bow. But there is no good explanation why Israel, if indeed it was behind the assassination, underestimated the technology. The other explanation—the assassins didn't care whether their faces were identified—doesn't seem plausible at all.
Today (post 9/11), the US targets people in areas where it is engaged in conflict with unmanned arial vehicles and eliminates them through the use of Hellfire Missiles. Sometimes people standing nearby die too and occasionally they hit the wrong target (file under: You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs). Do we want to call that planned political assassination or war fighting - I leave it to you, the blog reader to sort it out.
I personally shed no tears for the spilt Jihadi blood - but I do understand that all this racks up a cost that the United States and its citizens often don't grasp fully.
Is planned political assassination justified?