Reverberations of Yamamoto
The case study of the interception and shoot down of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s transport flight, based on successful cryptanalysis of Japanese coded communications traffic, has long been one of the most clear cut examples of the difficult calculus which must be weighed between using a unique intelligence source to immediate operational benefit, and risking the long term consequences of losing that source based on the higher order effects of the enemy’s possible reactions.
Generations of students have grappled with this case, but rarely is it mentioned that a serving Supreme Court Justice is among those who were decorated for their role in the operation. Nor, until now, has it been disclosed that the Justice has chosen a rather unique perspective from which to view the deed – seeing it as a questionable action, and evaluating future state sanctioned killings (such as judicial execution) through the prism of that experience.
Now, of all the ethical questions to be raised in the intelligence field, we rarely consider the morality of warfare itself. Just war theory and generations of thinkers before us have rendered this well trod ground. An intelligence officer is no less of a moral actor in supporting through analysis or action the ethical conduct of military action, in accordance with the civilized norms of warfare and customary international law. It is very much true that the intelligence professional is, through the chain of events he sets in motion, in a way responsible for the deaths of those who are killed on the kinetic end of the military deed. Yet these casualties are measured against the potential loss of friendly forces, and the potential effects of defeat in the conflict. In a just war, those casualties are almost always deemed necessary to prevent further, greater harm to those the intelligence professional is charged to protect. And if justified, the Western way of war dictates that the operational and tactical means by which the mission is carried out should imperil one’s own side to the least degree possible, and introduce effects as soon as is practical. Intelligence enables this – and targeted killing, especially through interception and engagement of fighter aircraft far from any civilian area, accomplishes this with the least possible harm to uninvolved bystanders.
This is not an abstract question of historical interest. Every day in the Long War, intelligence professionals seek to find and identify enemies which in their own way are no less cleverly dangerous than Yamamoto. In many cases, the dangers in attempting to apprehend those enemies on the battlefield – or even to attempt to engage them directly through infantry action in what is typically dense urban terrain, is to risk the death of friendly forces, the failure of the mission, or potential unintended collateral damage and civilian causalities. If the potential intelligence value to be gained by the capture of the individual does not outweigh the risk of the operation, and the operation does not imperil the intelligence sources and methods which allowed for the identification and location for the target, targeted killing through engagement standoff weapons may be the most ethical and moral choice. The Western way of war is to expend materiel, not our people, to obtain victory. While some have disingenuously attempted to declare such actions “state terrorism”, they are part and parcel of the legal and ethical framework by which the Western World has waged warfare for generations.
The introduction of Justice Steven’s comments in the ethical debate over targeted killing is most troubling. There are good men who grappled with damnably hard decisions regarding such matters daily, and who frankly display far better arguments - on both sides of the issue – backed by more solid reasoning and analytical judgment. Perhaps those engaged in the fight may choose to put forth a paper regarding such discussions. The
well regarded International Symposium for Military Ethics / Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics would seem to be the perfect venue for addressing such issues. And of course, this is excellent fodder for the intelligence studies academic classroom, for both the ethics of intelligence and SIGINT operations courses.
See also Ace of Spades for further uncensored commentary, and the excellent fictional treatment of the engagement (from Cryptonomicon) reproduced today at Volokh.