The May 2 raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound was a combination of virtuoso intelligence-gathering and analysis, impressive technological prowess and incredible bravery by the strike team… and their dog.
But one thing it might not have been is legal.
Which is not to say it wasn’t necessary, and even good. Clearly, bin Laden deserved to die — and the world is a safer place with him gone. But just because the man needed killing, doesn’t mean the hit that took him out didn’t bend or even break U.S. law. That’s the subject of my new piece for Politico.
The legality of the bin Laden hit is neither a pointless question nor a purely academic one. Our laws are meaningless if we don’t respect them. In a complex and dangerous world, a solid foundation of law helps ensure the peaceful coexistence of nations with ample reason to fear each other. In short, if we broke our laws in order to kill bin Laden, we risk the kind of behavior typical of a “rogue state.” And we all know how the world feels about rogue states.
In considering the legal case, some observers have focused on whether bin Laden was armed and fought his Navy SEAL assailants. But that’s confusing covert and military actions with cases of armed self-defense by cops and civilians here at home. The situations couldn’t be more different.
No, the legal issue actually boils down to one central question: Was the attack on Osama bin Laden truly a CIA-dominated covert action, or was it a mostly military one? The distinction matters because different U.S. legal codes apply to each category. Covert operations fall under Title 50. Military ops, under Title 10. In either case, the killing of the Al Qaeda chief presents legal problems.