What makes the CIA so special

CIA Study: When Does It Make Sense To Kill?

Status: 19.12.14 10:00 a.m.
by John Goetz & Alexander Tieg

A CIA secret paper examines the consequences of targeted killings and gives advice on when these programs are useful. Above all, it gives an insight into the self-image of the US secret service. Because the paper is less about the question of whether someone should be killed, but rather whether there is a right time for it.

When is the right moment to kill a person? The Central Intelligence Agency, the US foreign secret, has investigated this question - in a secret study available to NDR and "Süddeutscher Zeitung" and published by Wikileaks. The title: "Best Practices in Counterinsurgency: Making High-Value Targeting Operations an Effective Counterinsurgency Tool".

The evaluation of "targeted killings"

On 22 pages, the authors of the secret document write about the consequences of targeted killings, right at the beginning it says: "A CIA investigation into worldwide programs of targeted killings of important targets suggests that these operations can play an important role." Using several examples - the killing of FARC leaders in Colombia, military strikes against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, bombs on Hamas - the intelligence investigation distilled the positive effects of these targeting actions. The study lists:

  • The effectiveness of the insurgents is reduced.
  • The will and morale of the insurgents are weakened.
  • Insurgent groups can thus lose their support once they appear too weak.
  • Insurgent groups can split up if key people are purposefully eliminated.

The authors count among the negative consequences of the strategy:

  • Killing their leaders can radicalize a group.
  • Popular support can increase when a group is attacked.
  • The weakening of a group can create a power vacuum into which other parties to the conflict push.
  • The conflict can escalate - in the interests of insurgent groups.

The self-image of the CIA

Now it is important to know what the consequences of a military or intelligence operation can be. In this respect, the document is an argumentative tool kit that the agents can use - depending on what they want to prove or disprove. Above all, however, this investigation provides a rare insight into the self-image of the US secret service. The question is not whether the real dead can exist at all. The question is, when is the right time to kill? And: is it worth killing certain people?

Accordingly, a sensible goal could be groups "that are centralized and built around a person". They are "particularly vulnerable due to the loss of their managers". In addition: These "groups are weak" and "dependent" on their leaders, especially during the period of their formation and decline. Less "effective" targets, however, are groups and their leaders who have found refuge abroad or are protected from death and imprisonment by "political factors". Broad support among the population would also speak against targeted killing.

It's not about morality - it's about strategy

The right strategy therefore arises from the point in time, the target and its reputation, less from the consideration of whether it is right or wrong to kill someone. At least this is the impression the study gives. However, the authors write that this is merely trying to provide a framework for assessing the strategic benefit of targeted killing of important targets and "decision-makers and military directors who are involved in the authorization process [of these operations, editor's note]", to support.

To avoid the possibility of collateral damage, i.e. the killing of innocent people, the authors of the CIA study advise weighing up the possible methods of execution. In this way, the logistics of a group can be weakened or the flow of money can be prevented. But that's only at the very end, in the lower right corner, in the second appendix to the study. Because, as the authors themselves write: It's about the strategic benefit of targeted killings.