Can you tell when it’s peacetime and wartime anymore?

Posted on December 6, 2010

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Wikileaks has released ‘probably the most controversial document yet’, according to the BBC. It is a list of facilities around the world that the United States considers vital to its national security. ‘This is the kind of information terrorists are interested in knowing’, the former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind has said. My reaction was to take the same line as I did last week. Wikileaks have shown themselves as hostile towards the United States, and the international order more generally, and its leader Julian Assange can be legitimately bumped off. This sparked another discussion on Twitter about the rights and wrongs of targeted killing, so I thought I’d explain my position more clearly here.

To me, Wikileaks poses as much a threat to the stability of the international order as al-Qa’ida. Some think the comparison is wide of the mark because that threat doesn’t materialise in the same way. But if we believe Assange that Wikileaks has information on a ‘too big to fail’ American bank, then they are more dangerous. A second banking crisis is more destabilising internationally than anything AQ has done or attempted to do since September 11th. How do we respond to the threat? On Twitter this morning, the discussion focused on whether targeted killing was best or the ‘legitimate’ response of arresting Assange and putting him on trial. The reasons behind the latter approach were varied, and highlighted the problems Wikileaks, AQ and other nonstate actors are causing strategy and international law. Sam Hewett and Jordan Wax took the view that although Assange is a threat, the second and third order effects of killing him are too terrible to contemplate. Xavier Rauscher meanwhile thought it would set a dangerous precedent and only undermine international law. They are valid arguments to make.

Last week, I made clear in the comments of my post about Assange that bumping him off was not a silver bullet but had to be part of a wider strategy. Targeted killing works, as A. E. Stahl and William F. Owen wrote recently; it needs to serve some higher purpose, though. ‘If the desired end-state is less Assange,’ Jordan argued, ‘killing him accomplishes the opposite.’ He makes a fair point. The legal objections get to the heart of the matter. As differences between peacetime and wartime become hazy and nonstate actors come to pose as much of a threat to a country as conventional threats, international law is leaving grey areas in which people like Assange can use to hide from punishment. Xavier will probably address this in a series of guest posts he’s writing about Philip Bobbitt’s book Terror and Consent, but right now: I’m with Fitz…