Luca Trenta on Targeted Killing in US Foreign Policy

Last September, I secured a British Academy Small Grant for my project on targeted killing in US foreign policy. The project aims at understanding how assassination re-emerged as a policy option in the 1980s in spite of the existence of an Executive Order (EO) banning this. To answer such a question, the project looks at the Congressional inquiries on the CIA assassination attempts during the 1960s. It explores how the Ford Administration reacted to these inquiries and the decisions that led to Executive Order (EO) 11905 banning assassination. Finally, the project explores how, in spite of reconfirming the ban on assassination on paper (with EO 12333), the Reagan Administration started a process of circumventing the order.

I became interested in this process through my research on drones and targeted killings. Literature on drones seems to identify EO 11905 as a watershed moment: the US was involved in assassination attempts before the order, but practice and discussions of assassination were completely banned after such Order and until 9/11. My project aims at elucidating the complexities regarding assassination by exploring how – mostly through re-definitions of the meaning of assassination and of the boundaries of the Order – assassination re-entered the range of policy options long before 9/11.

aDuring the Easter Break, I conducted research at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor (MI). Early in the summer, I presented a paper based on my work on Ford at several conferences including the Central and Eastern European ISA in Ljubljana and the HOTCUS conference in Middelburg. I also organised a panel on normative change surrounding assassination for the Conference of the Italian Standing Group for International Relations in Trento, Italy.

In July, I went back to the States for further research. I conducted archival research at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley (CA), and at the Library of Congress and the National Security Archives in Washington DC. I also conducted a series of elite interviews with former policymakers and academics. These included former Legal Adviser for the U.S. Department of State and the National Security Council John Bellinger III, former Director of the NSA and CIA Gen. Michael Hayden, and former member of the Clinton and Obama Administration Bruce Riedel, a leading expert on counter-terrorism.

Based on this additional research, I presented an updated paper at a conference on the nature of covert action at the University of Nottingham and I arranged a second panel on assassination for the BISA US Foreign policy working group conference at the University of Bath.

Luca Trenta is lecturer in the Department of Political and Cultural Studies at Swansea University.  His book, Risk and Presidential Decision-making: The Emergence of Foreign Policy Crises is available with Routledge.



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