Death by Reinterpretation: Dynamics of Norm Contestation and the US Ban on Assassination in the Reagan Years
Journal of Global Security Studies
Recent scholarship analyzes norm dynamics in the US context using the prohibition on assassination contained in Executive Order 12333 as the relevant norm. These studies argue that—before 9/11—the ban on assassination was largely uncontested and effectively constrained US foreign policy. In doing so, these studies overlook the impact of the Reagan administration on the evolution of the ban. This article establishes that the Reagan administration engaged in a concerted, and largely successful,
... fort to undermine the ban. The article relies on scholarship on norm contestation and norm robustness. The analysis identifies key features of the ban as a norm, including its ambiguity and executive character. It highlights the role and power of a cluster of US officials led by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Casey. Crucially, the analysis traces the prominence of dynamics of contestation of the ban in the context of unconventional warfare and counterterrorism. In line with existing scholarship, the analysis finds cases of validity contestation, meaning contestation, and applicatory contestation. Contrary to existing scholarship, however, the analysis stresses the radical nature of actors' attempts to shrink the remit of the ban through applicatory contestation. This contestation was often made superfluous by the blurring—through meaning contestation—of the expectations set by the norm. A historically grounded analysis of contestation during the Reagan years provides a better understanding of how US officials (re)shaped the ban, establishing precedents for the legal, political, and discursive conventions surrounding assassination deployed after 9/11.