Surprisingly little interest has been shown in the apparently authoritative report in The New York Times that President Bush has given a “licence to kill” to the Central Intelligence Agency in respect of some twelve Al–Queda terrorists described as ”the worst of the worst”, and that these men can be taken–out without any further reference to him. That news is disturbing enough but what is even worse is that apparently the CIA can add further names to the list without consulting the President. The reports have not been denied by the White House or the CIA, simply greeted with ”No comment”. Killings of this kind are tantamount to state assassination, banned in 1976 by President Ford in response to public concern about covert action by the CIA against foreign nationals. They represent an implementation of the principle of pre–emptive action against terrorists which has been adopted by the United States even though there is no provision for it in international law. The twelve terrorists on the list approved by Mr Bush are designated as “enemy combatants”, though the United States is not legally at war.

To question these developments is not merely legal quibbling; the position now appears to be that the CIA can take–out anyone it suspects of being a terrorist without having to justify its action, even to the President. This is how police states start. The idea will be taken up enthusiastically by other countries which find “terrorism” a useful catch–all for dealing with people they don't like.