Since 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency has developed plans to dispatch small teams overseas to kill senior Qaeda terrorists, according to current and former government officials.The Times describes the program as "vague," noting that no operations were conducted and demuring with the list of obstacles that inhibit any covert action:
How could the role of the United States be masked? Should allies be informed andIt is unclear why the Bush administration was unable to overcome these obstacles when, according to Steve Coll's excellent book Ghost Wars, the Clinton administration was able to put into place a similar assassination program, targetting Osama bin Laden, during the 1990s.
might they block the access of the C.I.A. teams to their targets? What if American officers or their foreign surrogates were caught in the midst of an operation? Would such activities violate international law or American restrictions on assassinations overseas?
Not only might this program implicate the National Security Act of 1947, it may implicate the ban, by Executive Order, on political assassinations stretching back to Pres. Ford's administration. The Times defuses this possibility:
That ban [on political assassinations] does not apply to the killing of enemies in a war, government officials say. The Bush administration took the position that killing members of Al Qaeda, a terrorist group that has attacked the United States and stated that its goal is to attack again, is no different than shooting enemy soldiers on the battlefield.(emphasis added). I'm not sure if that justification is sufficient, particularly given the Bush administration's refusal to apply the "enemies in a war" standard to other facets of the War on Terrorism, like Geneva Conventions to Prisoners of War.