The United States has never acknowledged participation in the killing of Mughniyah, which Hezbollah blamed on Israel. Until now, there has been little detail about the joint operation by the CIA and Mossad to kill him, how the car bombing was planned or the exact U.S. role. With the exception of the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, the mission marked one of the most high-risk covert actions by the United States in recent years.
U.S. involvement in the killing, which was confirmed by five former U.S. intelligence officials, also pushed American legal boundaries.
Mughniyah was targeted in a country where the United States was not at war. Moreover, he was killed in a car bombing, a technique that some legal scholars see as a violation of international laws that proscribe “killing by perfidy” — using treacherous means to kill or wound an enemy.
“Remember, they were carrying out suicide bombings and IED attacks,” said one official, referring to Hezbollah operations in Iraq.
The authority to kill Mughniyah required a presidential finding by President George W. Bush. The attorney general, the director of national intelligence, the national security adviser and the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department all signed off on the operation, one former intelligence official said.
The former official said getting the authority to kill Mughniyah was a “rigorous and tedious” process. “What we had to show was he was a continuing threat to Americans,” the official said, noting that Mughniyah had a long history of targeting Americans dating back to his role in planning the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
“The decision was we had to have absolute confirmation that it was self-defense,” the official said.Among other attacks, Imad Mughniyah was believed to have been responsible for bombs that were used in two attacks in Argentina, the 1992 suicide bombing of the Israeli Embassy and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center.
While I don't remember this attack being covered in the book, you might want to check out Mark Mazzetti's The Way of the Knife which goes into some detail about how the Bush administration worked to transform the CIA, JSOC and other US forces into into kidnapping, torturing and killing units after 9/11. The CIA had gotten out of the killing and torture business following scandals in the 1970s and 1980s, imperfectly so, but were brought back in following the September 11th attacks.
It wasn't exactly a transformation that all CIA accepted but the Bush administration supported those in the agency who would carry out their demands. That's one reason why greater blame should be placed on civilian officials who ordered the CIA torture program. The CIA would not have gotten into the business had that not been what they were told to do.
Mark goes behind the scenes on some of the debates surrounding capture vs. kill, the legality of carrying out missions in countries where we were not at war, and the competition/coordination between CIA and Defense. It's a good, easy read.
I highly recommend the book. I almost assigned it for the September 11, 2001 and Beyond class I am teaching this semester. Mark is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who writes on national security issues for the New York Times and other outlets. We also graduated from Regis High School together in 1992.