Should We Use Private Contractors To Assassinate Terrorists?

Liberty & Security In The Age of Terrorism

After the events of 9/11, Texas Congressman Ron Paul proposed legislation (H.R. 3216) from the floor of the House of Representative calling for the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts using constitutional letters of marque and reprisal.

He was ignored, and instead the congress decided to delegate their constitutional powers to the president and allow him to use the full power of the American military to pursue Bin Laden. Instead of killing him immediately, we allowed him to escape and a brutal war ensued.

Would we have been better off if we had listened to Congressman Paul?

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Last year I was invited to speak to the Young Americans for Liberty conference in New Jersey to discuss issues of national security and terrorism. While at the conference, I presented the audience with a question. It went something like this:

Chechen Terrorists just blew up a building in your city, killing your family. What do you do? Do you A: Send in Seal Team 6 to Chechnya and kill them all? or B: Use letters of marque and reprisal to hire Blackwater to kill them all?

After I posed the question to the group, I took a show of hands from them to see which they preferred. Approximately one half of the audience chose Seal Team 6, the other half chose Blackwater.

This response shows that libertarians have a problem when it comes to foreign policy. 

YAL New Jersey Presentation:

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Considering that the crowd was so divided about how to handle terrorism, it seems reasonable to claim that there is no one monolithic foreign policy approach that can be called strictly libertarian in any sense. How then can we get closer to a foreign policy that maximizes individual liberty while guarding life, liberty and property in an uncertain world?

Let’s analyze both approaches and consider the pros and cons.

Letters of Marque

Letters of Marque are constitutional methods of assassinating pirates and terrorists, therefore they are legal, but only in America. They are also relatively free market (the government is still hiring them). Hiring contractors such as Blackwater would arguably save costs, as firms could compete for chance to kill terrorists named in the letters and thus fetch a price for themselves at a minimum of taxpayer expense.

They also are swift justice. Pirates or terrorists that see American privateers in action would know we mean business. You cut off the head of an American, expect to be looking out over New York harbor with your own dead eyes from your own severed head in a matter of a few weeks. Letters of marque also place a burden of collateral damage on the mercenary.

Assassins may only kill those who are named in the letters and are responsible for any civilian deaths they might incur, depending on the size of their contract. If a mercenary knows she will lose money if she harms a civilian in the raid, she will think twice about the methods she uses to kill our enemy. Part of the problem in 9/11 was that we allowed Bin Laden to slip away due to a bungled response time.

What are the negatives to letters of marque? A letter of marque is essentially handing the power of life and death over to a private corporation. Part of the system of checks and balances set up by our founders was to ensure due process. It could set a dangerous precedent to contract that power away. There is also the danger in empowering private militaries that they might attempt a coup of the government.

Such a plot was allegedly being fashioned against Franklin Delano Roosevelt by then senator Prescott Bush and the heads of DuPont chemical and other corporations. Although the Business Plot never came to fruition, and certainly FDR in staying for four consecutive terms was asking for it, emboldening and empowering private military forces in the modern United States would make this a very real threat that must be weighed against the benefits.

Letters of marque are also old and outdated. They would have to be updated in order to conform to international law, if they even could conform at all. Americans would have to dedicate themselves to the fact that by using mercenaries to assassinate terrorists in foreign lands, we would be very likely violating treaties and the sovereignty of other nations. That didn’t stop us from killing Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan however, no matter what the Pakistani government thought about it. 

One interesting fact to note is that the founder of Blackwater Erik Prince is a Ron Paul donor and supporter. It seems certain that he would agree with Paul that the best way to murder terrorists is by private contract.

Seal Team 6

What are the advantages to using the highly trained Seal Team 6? These patriots have sworn an oath to defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. They are highly nationalistic and their skills are a known asset. They are trusted by the American people and there is already a long history of precedent and jurisprudence regarding the legality of their use. The only thing that requires them to be put into action is the legal authority and mechanisms of congress and the executive branch.

Their use is respectful of existing treaties. Using ST6 would not go against our current treaties with foreign nations and the congress has the power of oversight into the activities and actions of the unit. The cons are that they can be exploited by an executive branch whose authority is unchecked by the congress. They are expensive and require heavy maintenance and consistent inflow of tax dollars in order to keep them outfitted with the latest technology. They are not free market at all and have no incentive to cut costs. In fact they have the opposite incentive. They are incentivized to spend as much as possible in order to do what they believe is in the best interest of fulfilling their mission, maintaining the security of the people of the United States. To them, no budget would be too big if it meant saving someone’s life.

Their use also brings with it all the power of the American government and could lead to the dangers of occupation and nation building. Seal Team 6 is supported by conventional units of the American military and many of them may be incentivized to deepen their involvement in foreign affairs in order to secure for themselves the glory of war. That is at odds with those who believe in a Jeffersonian-republican foreign policy of limited involvement in foreign affairs.

Also, social democratic central planners might find it tempting to encourage diplomacy by instituting programs in those nations aimed at central planning disguised as providing assistance and aid to distressed local communities.

So, considering all of these facts, which is the more superior method of dealing with terrorism? Libertarians who tend to be more pacifist might be shocked to consider the fact that anti-war congressman Ron Paul proposed a seemingly more brutal, but possibly more efficient method of killing Bin Laden. But if faced with the reality of terrorism, is it really that barbaric to use a method that the founders of America thought was important enough to write into the constitution?

Is it possible to be both anti-war and in favor of assassinations? If Ron Paul is the measuring stick, it would appear so.

Libertarians should consider these approaches in order to better formulate a more coherent foreign policy.



Austin Petersen

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  • Ryan Jay E Chesley
    February 10, 2014, 7:55 pm

    Ron Paul isn’t Anti-War… He is anti “military involvement with-out the consent of Congress”

  • PapaBear1130
    February 10, 2014, 7:58 pm

    ST6 brothers died because of the rules of engagement. I really don’t think they trust anyone right now.

  • sickntired
    February 10, 2014, 8:06 pm

    Pretty sure that “Blackwater” consists of retired, SEALS, GB, Rangers, etc….. It’s not like SEAL team 6 is anymore well trained than they are… some may have been on SEAL team 6 at one time or other.

  • Sandra Williams
    February 10, 2014, 8:28 pm

    Very thought-provoking.

  • Joe Trotter
    February 10, 2014, 8:44 pm

    Well, one of the problems with the ST6 was that they were not allowed in Pakistan, and sending them in as military was in crazy violation of international law and technically count as an invasion, so we “lent” them to the CIA, which was deemed enough of a loophole treaty wise.

    But, if we’re going to do that, we might as well have contractors do the dirty work. We basically privatized the National Clandestine Service over the last decade, why not take it further and privatize the intelligence community’s combat application groups? It will probably be cheaper in the long run.