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The best books on State-Sponsored Assassination

recommended by Luca Trenta

The President’s Kill List: Assassination and US Foreign Policy Since 1945 by Luca Trenta


The President’s Kill List: Assassination and US Foreign Policy Since 1945
by Luca Trenta


Political assassinations are usually portrayed in the media as the actions of rogue states acting recklessly, outside the bounds of international law. But it is far more common than you might think, says Luca Trenta—international relations expert and the author of The President's Kill List. Here, he recommends five books on state-sponsored assassinations and explains how different countries have justified, denied or redefined the practice.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

The President’s Kill List: Assassination and US Foreign Policy Since 1945 by Luca Trenta


The President’s Kill List: Assassination and US Foreign Policy Since 1945
by Luca Trenta

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Before we look at your book recommendations, might you outline for us why it’s important to understand the phenomenon of state-sponsored assassinations?

It’s important for two main reasons. The first is a more academic reason: in recent weeks and months, various countries have made claims or counter-claims accusing each other of conducting or attempting to conduct assassinations within the territory of another state. Recently Canada accused India, the United States accused India, and then the US published photos of an Iranian official suggested to have been involved in a plot to kill former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. These cases are discussed quite frequently in the news, but every time commentators give broader context there is a tendency to say that state-sponsored assassinations are quite rare and primarily used by rogue states, or non-western, non-democratic states. But if we look at the history of state-sponsored assassinations, perhaps starting with the Cold War, we see that over time all sorts of states have been involved—both democratic and authoritarian, western and non-western. So that’s a bit of a fallacy; many states find historical, political, and legal precedents in the activities of other states to justify their own behaviour.

And the second argument, which I guess is more practical, is that state-sponsored assassinations are very often received with a mixture of disbelief and disinformation. There doesn’t tend to be a particularly strong reaction to state-sponsored assassinations. We’ve seen many, many cases where states put an emphasis on diplomatic, strategic, political, or financial interests, as opposed to punishing or increasingly the penalties for states engaging in state sponsored assassinations. Human rights become, at best, a secondary concern. For example, Russia conducted several assassinations in the UK, but it took the recklessness of the Skripal case for the UK government to impose serious sanctions on Russia—and those were nowhere near those imposed for the war in Ukraine.

The case of Rwanda is quite similar. Rwanda has been involved in extraterritorial assassinations and repression. But western governments—primarily the United States, France and Britain—have so many interests in maintaining strong relationship with Rwanda they are not willing to punish or push the Rwandan government on the protection of human rights. The same is true of Saudi Arabia and the almost complete lack of repercussions for the gruesome assassination of journalist Jamal Kashoggi.

Are we to understand that almost all countries have ordered assassinations? 

It is quite widespread. We can also note process of learning between one state and another, in both a formal and an informal manner. For example, historically, states that had developed a reputation for and a record of covert operations and/or counterinsurgency—which are the realms in which assassination tends to appear—conducted formal training of other states’ forces, where the latter learned the same tricks of the trade. For example, French officials who were involved in the war in Algeria ended up training officials in Latin America in the same way the United States trained Latin American forces in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s through the very famous ‘School of the Americas.’ So, there is an element of formal training from the experts in these practices.

There is an informal learning. Intelligence officials of various countries can look at the practices of states like Russia, the US, and Israel and at the operations of their respective intelligence services and adopt similar institutions, structures, and procedures. Of course, there is also an element of self-justification, here. For example, several states argue: If the United States does it, why shouldn’t we? If Israel does it, and we understand our strategic situation as similar to that of Israel—an argument made by a Rwandan intelligence chief later victim of assassination—why shouldn’t we operate in a similar manner?

At times this is taken almost to the extreme. States who want to justify their policies end up adopting the same language as western states. For example, they are ‘killing terrorists.’ That’s tracking the language that has been used for some time by Israel and the United States to carry out what they define as targeted killings.

You mentioned the role of the United States in Latin America. Perhaps we talk about the first book you’d like to recommend, which is J. Patrice McSherry’s Predatory States—a study of Operation Condor—that is, the covert coordination of repressive military governments during the Cold War—and the influence of the US during that period.

Operation Condor should be included in any discussion of state-sponsored assassination. There is a lot of choice of books that I could mention—Francesca Lessa at UCL just published an amazing book called The Condor Trials: Transnational Repression and Human Rights in South Americabut I picked McSherry because, first of all, it was one of the earlier books on this topic. It relies on a lot of archival material. What I found particularly interesting was her discussion of state responsibility—she’s looking at the extent to which the United States can be understood as responsible for Condor.

The argument is a very nuanced one; not blaming explicitly the United States. Condor was run primarily by military dictatorships within Latin American, with a protagonist role for Pinochet’s Chile, and to a certain extent Argentina. But it does say that the United States was such a powerful actor in Latin America, and that perhaps we need a broader understanding of state responsibility and involvement, which is also an argument I tried to make in my own book.

“States who want to justify their policies end up adopting the same language as western states: they are ‘killing terrorists’”

The United States, from the 1950s and 1960s onwards, provided ideological and ideational support. It prepared the ground. The US government basically worked to turn the militaries of Latin America states away from external threats and towards internal repression, playing a dominant position within domestic political life. For Condor, the US government also provided what McSherry calls ‘logistical support,’ so, the transfer of technology to Condor countries, the sale of weapons, the training of military officials, and the sharing of intelligence. Finally, there was direct participation or operational involvement. US personnel collaborated in abductions and interrogations, and Condor communications some went through systems within the US zone in Panama, for example. So there was a physical infrastructure through which the United States was involved, and which it could have completely cut off, but didn’t.

Finally, one could argue that, at a higher level, there was a reluctance to call out and punish these countries for their behaviour, even when this behaviour proved reckless, such as with the assassination of Orlando Letelier—a former Minister in Salvador Allende’s government—in Washington DC. The United States almost always refused to exercise strong pressure in defence of human rights when dealing with the Condor countries. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger went as far as to ignore the recommendations of US ambassadors in the field.

Should we surmise from this book, and the other books on your list, that there is no such thing as governmental morality?

No, I wouldn’t think so. I’m not the sort of harsh Realist that would argue there’s no space for morality in the conduct of foreign policy. I have no doubt that many of the people working in the US government at the time were driven primarily by moral and human rights concerns. But different people in the government work differently, I think.

John Dinges, the investigative journalist, has written several books on Condor. He talked about a system where some members of the US government would give a ‘green light,’ or turn a blind eye to terrible activities—from torture to disappearance, extra-territorial assassinations, and so on. Others, at the same moments would give a ‘red light’ and express opposition. But of course, the actors involved only received the messages that they wanted to receive, especially if the green light was coming from someone higher up than a local ambassador or local authority.

Your second book recommendation, Rise and Kill First by Ronen Bergman, is subtitled ‘the secret history of Israel’s targeted assassinations.’ Can you tell us more?

Yes. I’m a big fan of your website, so I know this book was already picked by my friend and colleague Rory Cormac. And, I think, for very good reasons. This book is the book we all want to write: an incredibly detailed account of the history of the targeted killing or assassination programme from Israel’s founding, or a little earlier, to the present. It has incredible access to former officials, both granted access and access that Bergman, like, obtained. He received a lot of documents, and so on.

He makes the argument that no other country in the Western world has used assassination as much as Israel since the end of the Second World War. It’s very difficult to verify such an argument empirically, because assassinations primarily happen in secret. It depends how you define assassination. But it certainly puts Israel and its programme of targeted killing very much at the centre.

The discussion is, I think, very interesting because it showcases the number of rationales used by Israel to rely on assassination. These varied over time. At one point, they were primarily to instil terror—for example, in the British authorities when there was still a mandate for Palestine. The rationale was at times self-defence, at times state security. Sometimes it was pure revenge, as in Operation Bayonet, or Operation Wrath of God, which was the campaign of assassination after the terrorist attack during the Munich Olympics in 1972. Some people have drawn parallels between that campaign and the current campaign against the leadership of Hamas, suggesting that it might be encountering the same problems, that both people who were responsible and people who only had a tangential connection to the terrorist attacks are being targeted.

But what Bergman does really well is showcase the strategic and moral dilemmas surrounding the use of assassination, and the fact that it doesn’t always work. It might work in the short term, but whoever you’re killing might be replaced by somebody worse. You might also kill innocents, and a lot of them. You might kill people who are important in broader geopolitical dynamics—for example, when Israel killed Hassan Salameh, an important CIA contact within the PLO. There are also, of course, diplomatic repercussions when operations fail and Israeli operatives are caught red-handed often carrying fake passports from friendly countries.

The book covers a lot of ground from the changing rationale to the changes in personnel. It moves from the 1940s to the present day, and the international context changes radically. Similarly, there is a plethora of methods that Israel uses, from your simple shooting to poison to explosives. More recently, Israeli has become a pioneer of the use of drones for assassinations and targeted killings. But the book keeps its focus on the operatives conducting assassinations, how they are conducting it, why, with what methods. It also focuses on the need for political (often prime ministerial) approval for these operations.

Well, perhaps we could talk about Russian assassinations next. You’ve selected Amy Knight’s book Putin’s Killers: The Kremlin and the Art of Political Assassination. Why?

In more recent times, there has been a lot of attention on Russia in both public and academic circles. What’s interesting is the frequency with which Russia relies on state-sponsored assassinations. There’s a big debate among experts as to why Russia is doing it, and why Russia gives the impression of being bad at it, especially when it is done internationally.

Right. You mentioned the Skripal case. It became a kind of farce.

So, plenty of experts think that Russia is trying to send a message, to oligarchs and political dissidents inside and outside Russia, that wherever you are, we’ll get you. It’s being broadcast to state authorities, to say: look, we will carry out the most brazen assassination attempts in your cities.

The methods used—polonium or novichok—are incredibly sophisticated weapons that can only have been produced by the state, so the hand of the state becomes clear. So there’s a lot to be said for the argument that Russia is trying to send a message.

I should point out that not all people believe this argument. Some people with past experience in US counterintelligence, for example, have been arguing that, actually, we don’t really know whether Russia is sending a message. There are other explanations. For example: Russia is unaware of the political, strategic and diplomatic consequences of what they do. That they are indifferent, that they simply don’t care, or that they do care but that they are just incompetent.

For example, in the Skripal case, the suspects were basically tracked around Salisbury on CCTV camera, then they were put in front of cameras by Putin to say they were only in the city to look at the cathedral… which leads us to another debate, about Russian disinformation, which is generally seen as something that favours Russia because it blurs Russian responsibility. And I’m starting to have the impression that Russian disinformation could also be somewhat welcomed by western states that have to respond to these provocations, because they can always fall back on the argument that we are not 100% certain that it was Russia—so how can we take serious counter-measures?

“There’s a big debate among experts as to why Russia is doing it—and why Russia gives the impression of being bad at it”

It’s a working hypothesis at the moment. But I am of the impression that blurring the lines of responsibility is beneficial, both for the state carrying out an assassination and for those who find themselves in the position of having to respond to such an attack.

I think Knight’s book does an exceptional job in tracking the history of, briefly, Tsarist Russia, then Soviet Russia, then the Putin regime, in carrying out assassinations of a very different set of targets—from journalists, to competing oligarchs, to leaders of insurgencies and political opponents.

What the book does well is stay within the boundaries of what we know and not fall for the more sensationalistic accounts, which are quite prevalent when it comes to state-sponsored assassination, and in particular Russian-sponsored assassination.

Next you’ve chosen to recommend former Five Books interviewee Michaela Wrong’s book Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad.

This is lesser-known history. When it comes to the usual suspects in assassination, you have Russia, Israel, perhaps the United States. This is a different case, the case of Rwanda. The argument Wrong makes, particularly well, is the ability of the Kagame regime to exploit memory and history in order to strengthen itself, and to establish connections with powerful western allies so that even when the regime goes well beyond what is needed for security, and engages in extra-territorial repression, kidnappings, assassinations, there is a very small price to pay—or even no price to pay at all. Because all they confront is complaints from NGOs and investigative journalists. Western leaders who have, in their view, much bigger interests in maintaining good relationships with Rwanda, tend to turn a blind eye to the violation of human rights, all the way up to assassination.

We’ve seen similar cases—for example, the case of Saudi Arabia, which paid a very, very small price for the incredibly reckless assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. Saudia Arabia is already back in the good books of most western countries. The same is true in the case of Rwanda, tracked effectively by Michaela Wrong.

The book is built around the assassination of the former intelligence chief of the Rwandan regime, Patrick Karegeya. Wrong, at one point, actually interviewed Karegeya about the regime’s practices, including assassination, and in a very candid interview Karegeya made the argument that the situation of Rwanda is not so different to that of Israel: it’s a very small and densely populated country that cannot allow itself to have another invasion or internal civil war. So, the policy is one of outsourcing the use of violence through pre-emptive and preventive assassinations outside the borders of Rwanda itself. Karegeya linked this approach explicitly to Israel and Mossad, going back to the argument that we made earlier, about setting a precedent. Karegeya was very explicit in suggesting that, ‘if Israel does it, we do it as well.’

One of the points made by Wrong, and by a 2023 Human Rights Watch report, relates to the use of Rwandan diasporas to increase pressure on certain individuals or potential dissidents. Family members might be arrested to induce these people to come back—something Saudi Arabia is also very good at doing.

And, an element that connects to our previous discussion, Rwanda has established very effective links to intelligence services of other countries throughout Africa, to the extent that some of these countries have helped Rwandan authorities by arresting individuals and in the rendition of them to Rwanda, through intelligence, collaborations, and so on. There was a case in Mozambique, for example, in 2021, where a Rwandan journalist and founder of an opposition movement was arrested by local police and handed over to Rwanda. Which is not dissimilar to what was happening with the Condor countries, helping each other out by arresting dissidents and sending them back to their countries of origin.

The final book you’ve chosen to recommend is Cecilia Menjívar and Néstor Rodríguez’s When States Kill.

This is an edited volume looking at the establishment of a system of repression in Latin America, starting in the 1960s and going into the 1990s, from the Cold War to the War on Drugs. The argument made is set within (neo-)Marxist approaches to international relations. It suggests that the system of repression is established either at the direction of or with the complicity of the United States—understood correctly as the hegemon or dominant power—in order to maintain a system of economic and financial exploitation of Latin America. I find the argument quite persuasive, but whether one buys into this overall theoretical framework or not, is beside the point. The chapters themselves are incredibly detailed, and they provide some of the best analysis I’ve seen of the repression conducted by several countries in Latin America and of the rationales behind this repression.

One of the running themes is the detrimental effects of what became known as the ‘doctrine of national security.’ This is a political and foreign policy doctrine, according to which the rights of the state are more important than the rights of individual human beings. And it tends to create a sort of double standard: one legal system for individuals and a separate legal system, primarily built on impunity, for security agencies, the military, and so on. Which, interestingly, is also an argument that Ronen Bergman made about Israel; he argued that in the history of Israel, assassination was able to be so prominent because the intelligence agencies operated on a parallel legal system to that of the rest of the country.

The doctrine of national security in Latin America very much served the same purpose, the same function. There’s an interesting element of the discussion, making the argument that the responsibility of the United States can be seen in the amount of money pumped into the militaries of these countries, as opposed to their civil societies, development projects, and so on. Certainly, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Latin American militaries become the partners of choice for the US. And because they were so well funded and so well organised, it became almost inevitable that they would play a dominant role within the political life of their respective countries. When they did so, the United States was happy for them to stay in power, as long as they professed a strong anti-communism and conducted themselves, externally, with a modicum of respectability. Internally the regimes could do whatever they wanted, with little fear of repercussions and/or naming and shaming.

You recently published a new book, The President’s Kill List: Assassination and US Foreign Policy Since 1945, which investigates the US government’s involvement in the assassination of foreign officials from the early Cold War to the present.

Initially the book was to be a very ambitious history of US government involvement in assassination, full stop. But it was becoming as long as Lord of the Rings. It would have been difficult to convince any publisher to go with it. So, I narrowed it down to the assassination of foreign officials, primarily foreign leaders with a couple of exceptions. One is General René Schneider, the commander in chief of the Chilean army in the 1970s, and the other is Osama Bin Laden. Some people have made the argument that Bin Laden could be understood a foreign official, because he was the head of a structured terrorist group, but I argue primarily that the hunt for Bin Laden pre-9/11 is essential for us to understand the post-9/11 establishment and expansion of so-called ‘targeted killings.’

The book does two main things. Firstly, it tracks the US government involvement in assassination plots, and secondly, it looks at the politics surrounding assassinations, which to my mind include the degree of involvement of the President in decisions to kill and the language used to internally justify and publicly legitimate assassination. The turning point of the book is the 1970s, when after Congressional investigations of the intelligence community, the Ford administration published an executive order reforming the intelligence community, containing a prohibition on assassination.

Some people have argued that, with the executive order, the US stopped being involved in assassinations until after 9/11. I make the argument that what changed with the executive order was not that the US stopped being involved in assassinations but that it started developing internally and—eventually—publicly a series of legal positions and political justifications to establish that what it was doing might look like assassination, but it was something else.

Interesting. Does that extraordinary photo of Obama and Clinton in the situation room during the killing of Osama Bin Laden signal a change in approach? It was publicly released, almost trumpeted.

Yes, I think by that point there were already quite a few signs of openness regarding the use of drones and so on. Various US officials had publicly justified the Administration’s use of drones as compliant with US and international law; something far from accepted. After the killing of Bin Laden, there was an article in The New York Times about Obama holding ‘Terror Tuesdays’ with his counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, in which they would go through PowerPoint slides of key terrorists to kill by drone strike. By this point, ‘assassination’ had been completely removed from the language of US foreign policy, it was all about ‘targeted killings.’

I guess what I tried to do in my book was uncover how we got there. In 2020, for example, the US government killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Then-President Trump openly took responsibility by tweeting a badly pixelated American flag. US officials, though, denied that the killing of Soleimani amounted to an assassination. This is the historical puzzle I tried to unravel. In order to do this, I had to go back to the early Cold War, when the US published a manual on how to do assassination. I looked at long-forgotten cases of assassination and assassination attempts. And more famous cases, for example, the campaign against Fidel Castro, the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, and more recent cases such as Manuel Noriega, the leader of Panama, Muammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and eventually Bin Laden.

Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, there was an effort to both conduct assassinations but to also make sure there was sufficient political and legal cover to be able to claim that these were not assassinations, but self-defensive and/or counterterrorism operations.

As a closing question: I noticed that several of these nonfiction books about political assassination include on the front cover a prominent endorsement from John le Carré. It prompted me to think about the link between fiction and covert operations, the obfuscation of truth. Do you think one might gain an accurate sense of this shadowy world through fiction?

Some novels are closer to the truth than others. Le Carré is a good example, because I think the portrayal he gives of the British secret services and how the Cold War rivalry played out is a very dark and pessimistic one, without your flamboyant James Bond running around shooting everyone. Lately I’ve been a big fan of Slow Horses, which is a darker and funnier take on post-9/11 covert operations. There are also roman-à-clefs, where everything is accurate except the names might be fictitious. For example, we mentioned the case of Hassan Salameh—the CIA contact with the PLO who was killed by Israel. That is told in surprising detail in a novel called Agents of Innocence by David Ignatius. So sometimes fiction gets really, really close to the bone.

In many television dramas at the moment, there are a lot of Russian bad guys—I guess on the back of all these assassinations, and the Ukraine war, and so on—and many dramas in which the enemy is within, when your own government is behind whatever bad thing happens. Slow Horses does that a bit, and The Diplomat, a Netflix show which I enjoyed lately, does something like that. It all goes back to this question of who you can trust among spies, and that British obsession with cases like that of Kim Philby.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

May 8, 2024

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Luca Trenta

Luca Trenta

Luca Trenta is an associate professor in international relations at Swansea University. His research explores secrecy, covert operations, and state-sponsored assassinations, with a primary focus on the CIA and the US government. Luca is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Higher Education Academy.

Luca Trenta

Luca Trenta

Luca Trenta is an associate professor in international relations at Swansea University. His research explores secrecy, covert operations, and state-sponsored assassinations, with a primary focus on the CIA and the US government. Luca is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Higher Education Academy.