BRITISH Foreign Secretary David Miliband says it is "outrageous". The French foreign ministry has expressed its "deep concern". Even the Americans appear to be gearing up for a major diplomatic protest. And the cause of all the outrage? Not the murder, almost certainly by the Israelis, of Mahmoud Al Mabhouh in Dubai. Rather, it's that the murderers used forged British and French passports - or in America's case, that they used a United States credit card to book flights to Dubai for six members of the hit squad.

Forging passports is certainly a bad thing - but is it worse than murder? To judge by the international reaction to the killing of Al Mabhouh, it is much worse. Yet it was not all that long ago that it was thought to be, well, indecent for a government to go around assassinating its enemies. When the British government sent a group of Special Air Service officers to murder suspected members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on Gibraltar, there was an enormous international outcry. Britain was hauled before the European Court and severely admonished. Would there be such a response today? Only if the killers forged their travel documents.

In the 1980s, one element of the British Army routinely helped Loyalist death squads kill suspected IRA men in Belfast. A group called the Force Research Unit handed out names, addresses and photographs of those who were thought to be on active service for the IRA to Loyalist assassins. In those days, the whole thing had to be kept secret. When one officer referred obliquely to the practice in court, his claims were very quickly denied. But the officer concerned was never tried or even admonished - in fact, he was promoted.

The United States had, and indeed still has, a presidential Executive Order, which has the force of law, stating that "no person employed by or acting on behalf of the US government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination". During the first Gulf War, General Michael Dugan was sacked as US Air Force Chief of Staff because he suggested that America was trying to kill former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. That, he insisted, was the point of most of the bombing raids on Iraq: The bombs were being dropped on places where Saddam was thought to be.

No US official advocating assassination would face the sack today. It has become an essential part of policy: America routinely uses unmanned drones to kill those it thinks are important figures in the Taliban. Only last week, a drone killed Mohammed Haqqani - the brother of a senior Afghan Taliban commander - in Waziristan. No one has objected: There hasn't even been an outcry about the additional deaths caused by these weapons, which don't discriminate between the good, the bad, and the women and children.

There is, of course, a critical difference between targeting Saddam and targeting Haqqani or Al Mabhouh. Saddam was a head of state. The others were not: They were merely members of terrorist organisations.

There is an unspoken rule that no leader should order the assassination of another. The rule is self-enforcing: Heads of state, particularly in democracies, are visible targets and even the most diligent security service cannot guarantee their safety. Aware of their own vulnerability to a determined assassin, presidents and prime ministers are eager not to establish a precedent that leaders are fair game.

Lesser mortals, however, obviously are. When Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian Federal Security Service, was murdered by what almost everyone now believes was one of Russia's state security organisations, the British government contented itself with a relatively mild protest, and the expulsion of a few diplomats when Russia refused to extradite the chief suspect. That was it.

This apparent international consensus that assassination is a legitimate tool of foreign policy is a very sinister development. State-sponsored murder is still murder. And murder is still a worse offence than using forged passports. The Daily Telegraph

From TODAY, Monday, 22-Feb-2010

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