Iranian officials quickly pointed to Israel and the United States as likely perpetrators, and the Atomic Energy Organization released a statement affirming its commitment to the nuclear program: “The heinous actions by the criminal Israeli regime and America will not disrupt the path the Iranian people have chosen.”
Additionally, the Iranian permanent representative to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that claimed, but did not provide, “firm evidence that certain foreign quarters are behind such assassinations.” He added, “These quarters have spared no efforts in depriving the Islamic Republic of Iran from its inalienable right to peaceful nuclear energy and called for conducting covert operations ranging from assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists to launching a military strike on Iran as well as sabotaging Tehran’s nuclear program.”
The statements of denial from the Obama administration were atypically emphatic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded: “I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.” Tommy Vietor, spokesperson of the National Security Council, said, “The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this.”
In previous attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists, U.S. officials have been evasive and far less forthcoming. In January 2010, after the assassination of physics professor Massoud Ali Mohammadi, a State Department spokesperson rejected the allegations of U.S. involvement as “absurd.” Later that year in November 2010, coordinated attacks targeted two nuclear scientists, killing one and severely injuring the other. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley did not directly address the incident: “All I can say is we decry acts of terrorism wherever they occur and beyond that, we do not have any information on what happened.”
Recent statements of denial are unique because, normally, the U.S. government does not comment “as a matter of policy” on targeted killings. Since September 11, the U.S. government has conducted similar operations—outside of the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq—in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and possibly elsewhere. According to anonymous U.S. officials, drone strikes have killed more than 2,000 militants and approximately fifty noncombatants in Pakistan alone since 2004, although the number of civilian casualties ishotly contested. A few dozen suspected militants have also been killed outside of Pakistan.
Despite over ten years and 300 operations, there is no transparency and little congressional oversight over the U.S. policy of targeted killings. We know that the United States has somewhere between four and seven kill lists; kill lists are not coordinated; and U.S.citizens— possibly including children—can be targeted, thus denying their Fifth Amendment due process protections.
The reason these operations remain “secret” is that if the Bush or Obama administrations were to acknowledge any aspect of the program, it would create an architecture of justification and precedence for which the U.S. government can be held publicly accountable. Even democratic governments want limited oversight and total autonomy, especially when authorizing sensitive military operations.
Many senior U.S. officials who have left government since September 11 admit that the degree of transparency is inadequate. Jack Goldsmith, legal adviser for the Defense Department during the Bush Administration, questioned, “What are the procedures being used to ensure the right people are being targeted?” John B. Bellinger III, former legal advisor for the State Department, has similarly argued: “The [Obama] administration needs to work harder to explain and defend its use of drones as lawful and appropriate—to allies and critics—if it wants to avoid losing international support and potentially exposing administration officials to legal liability.” Former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair also called for public acknowledgment of the drone program: “You need a way to make it something that is part of your overt policy.”
According to administration officials, suspected members of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups can be legally targeted and killed because they fall under the September 2001,Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which passed the House 420 to 1 and the Senate 98 to 0. According to the AUMF, the “President has authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States.”
Who is authorizing the assassination of scientists and officials in Iran? President Bushreportedly authorized covert—although nonlethal—action to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. It is unknown if President Obama extended the Bush administration authorization (as he did for Pakistani drone strikes), but it is highly doubtful that he expanded them to permit lethal force against civilian scientists. Moreover, it is unlikely that the U.S. intelligence community has been permitted to share information with other countries or foreign agents in order for them to use lethal force.
The absence of transparency and oversight of ten years of targeted killings by the CIA and special operations forces makes U.S. denials regarding Iran less credible. President Obama famously said, “The CIA gets what it needs.” In this case, I hope that the CIA did not request the authority to kill Iranian civilian scientists and, if they did, that the president did not acquiesce.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Micah Zenko.