When Scientists Go Rogue, Is Assassinating Them Ever Justified?

Someone has declared an unofficial war on Iranian nuclear scientists. Is violence aimed at scientists engaged in objectionable activities legitimate public policy?

When scientists go rogue, is assassinating them ever justified?

The answer: it depends.

In the case of Iran’s murdered physicists, someone has decided to draw a bright line – and the reason is whether such a line is justifiable.

A bit of background: In January, Iran announced that one of its government scientists, presumably working on building the country’s first nuclear weapons, was killed when his car blew up on his way to work at a nuclear “enrichment” facility. The assassination –- apparently carried out by a masked person on a motorbike who planted a bomb on the scientist’s car -- is believed to be the fourth such murder of an Iranian physicist in the past two years.

No one has claimed responsibility for the killing of these scientists, though suspicion has fallen on the government of Israel and even on the government of the U.S., which denies having any role in the attacks. Whomever is behind these attacks – and the world may never know for certain -- one conclusion seems certain: Some group or government has declared an unofficial war on Iranian nuclear scientists, raising the question whether direct violence, aimed at scientists engaged in objectionable activities, is a legitimate public policy or practical aim.

The prospect that more Iranian scientists will be killed – perhaps, as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic has suggested, in order to “convince Iranian nuclear scientists to seek other lines of work” -- brings to new meaning to the term “science wars,” which has generally covered verbal and political attacks on scientists, not violent ones.

The assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists might be dismissed as a special case, a new form of promoting “non-proliferation” of nuclear weapons by killing the scientists involved. Once the purview of diplomats and treaty negotiators, traditional policies towards non-proliferation have fallen on hard times. India, Pakistan and North Korea each developed their own nuclear arsenals in spite of the existence of vigorous opposition by the non-proliferation community. But these opponents strictly relied on diplomacy, rule of law and negotiation – not by targeting Indian, Pakistani or Korean scientists individually and picking them off one by one.

What has changed so that now targeting scientists is an option for a U.S. government trying to limit the spread nuclear weapons – and especially to keep them out of Iranian hands?

One major shift is in the culture of science and scientists around the world. During the long Cold War, when U.S. and Soviet scientists both competed (intensely) on building new weapons and cooperated (to a limited extent) on controlling these weapons, there was a shared understanding that scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain shared a common heritage and values. David Holloway’s classic account of the Soviet nuclear enterprise, Stalin and the Bomb (1995), suggests that Soviet scientists were animated by the same kind of idealism and sense of national purpose that shaped the work of American bomb scientists at Livermore and Los Alamos.

Both sides also were animated by fear. The Americans feared that Nazi scientists might build a bomb first (they did not). At the same time, the scientific leadership of the Soviet bomb were scheduled for execution in the event that the first Soviet test, in 1949, proved to be a dud. So fear competed with idealism on both sides of the Cold War.

Because Soviet and U.S. scientists and engineers shared common backgrounds and intellectual horizons – participating in a  “republic of science” that transcended borders -- the U.S. government spent a great deal of time and effort communicating and even wooing Soviet scientists. Similarly, today American universities spend a great deal of time and effort assisting, training and sometimes collaborating with Chinese scientists.

Relations with scientists in the Islamic world are more tense and conflicted, and not only because of geo-politics. The religious divide between scientists may be wider today any ideological divides of the past. And science, as a transnational activity, is now so large and varied that rather than a single unified global community. Geo-political enclaves have emerged, riven by hard and enduring differences. One obvious one: Israeli scientists and engineers have designed and built nuclear weapons, but no one is trying to assassinate any of them. The decision to consider a policy of targeting Islamic scientists for special handling is embedded in a wider set of assumptions about which brilliant minds can be trusted and which can’t. Those scientists who fall outside of the circle of trust may do so more because of their non-scientific beliefs than their scientific objectives.

Setting aside the “clash of civilizations” justification for viewing Muslim scientists as subject to a different set of rules, the whole matter of holding individual scientists to account – rather than say indiscriminately bombing an entire country, as happened with Iraq – offers apparent efficiencies. The allure of killing the critical link in a chain of “evil doing” is not limited to scientists either, but because scientists themselves have a professional expectation to use their knowledge responsibly, there has got to be consequences when they don’t. The tough question is how and when to hold scientists responsible for their activities, and what degree manner sanctions should they receive for behavior found troubling or objectionable in the extreme.

The problem is as old as organized science itself. Consider the trial of Galileo in 1633 over his conclusions that the Earth revolves around the Sun and thus the Sun, as his Papal Condemnation noted, “is the center of the world.” But Galileo was sanctioned, not put to death, so was the harm against him unreasonable? What about the hearing in 1954 to strip Robert Oppenheimer of his security clearance on grounds of unreliability? Both of these cases reflect the impulse by local authorities to sanction or silence scientists living and working under their jurisdiction. That’s a far cry from assassination and, anyway, the question of acting against scientists in other countries – acting with lethal force – seems to present an entirely different set of issues.

Just when is it justified to kills a scientist, in a surprise attack, for his or her scientific actions? And to do so, even when those scientific actions may be a consequence of the scientist’s loyalty to their own state?

To be sure, it is because some scientists possess special powers for doing harm that the question – of maybe killing them --even begins to appear rational. The possibility that a policy of targeted killings of scientists is justified has been accepted certainly since World War II when the U.S. put some scientists in Nazi Germany under close scrutiny. One German physicist, the esteemed Werner Heisenberg, is even believed to have been the target of an assassination plot by an American spy.

Because the spy in question was also a professional baseball player, Moe Berg, the Heisenberg case has been well studied and the story is well-established. In December 1944, a small crowd of professors and graduate students gathered in a Zurich auditorium to hear Heisenberg, Germany's top physicist, lecture on something called matrix theory. Most were there to expand their scientific knowledge. But one attendee, armed with a pistol and a cyanide caplet, had an altogether different purpose. Posing as a Swiss student, Berg – then on leave from baseball and working for the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA), was on a mission to analyze Heisenberg's speech and determine how close the Nazis were to building an atomic bomb. If Berg thought they were too far along, he was authorized to assassinate Heisenberg.

That Berg didn’t assassinate Heisenberg just as precaution suggests the distance traveled by governments and the scientists that they both admire, depend on – and sometimes fear. Why even take the risk of leaving Heisenberg alive? One main reason was that today’s rogue scientists might tomorrow become the brains of your own country’s campaign to produce a strategic breakthrough.

Pre-emptive may be just. They are also risky. As in the case of Japanese “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor and British and American forces in Asia, pre-emptive strikes can harden the resolve of enemies and reduce the chances for compromise to avoid wider conflict. In pursuing a policy of assassinating scientists doing bad, there’s always the possibility of killing wrong one.

Scientists also change their priorities – and their paymasters. Evidence for the perpetual hope that scientists working for the enemy might be “turned” also springs from World War II. In the waning months of the European war, the U.S. dispatched an “Alsos” mission in search of German scientists, whom they wanted to gain physical possession of – perhaps in order to task them to U.S. nuclear work – but also to prevent them from falling into Soviet possession. The pursuit and capture of these German scientists, Heisenberg included, is amply and dramatically documented in a classic book by Thomas Powers, “Heisenberg’s War.”

German physicists turned out to have done little important work on the actual making of nuclear weapons. Not so in missiles and space technology, where German leadership was amply demonstrated by the rocket attacks, late in the war, against Britain. As part of “Project Paperclip,” the U.S. scooped up Werner Von Braun and hundreds of other German rocket scientists. Not only did the U.S. “turn” von Braun, the brilliant Nazi space he went on to provide decisive contributions to U.S. missile and space capabilities.

Would assassinating von Braun during World War II have served any higher purpose beyond senseless revenge?

Reasonable people can differ on whether assassinating any individual scientist would change an outcome, but given the vast range of capacities in engineers and scientists, the presumption is that knocking off big brains possibly would retard, if not halt, the inventiveness of the bad guys. In an illuminating survey of the topic, William Tobey, writing in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, found:

“It is unclear who is responsible, but the attacks raise unique policy questions about motives, effectiveness, repercussions, and legal and moral standards. Past assassination plots including a US plan to kidnap or kill a German atomic scientist in World War II suggest that such attempts are products of desperation: A nation tries to kill another country’s nuclear scientists when it sees no military or diplomatic options for addressing a perceived threat of existential proportions. The possible advantages of targeting another country’s nuclear scientists are modest at best, possibly delaying (but not halting) a nuclear weapons program while providing some deniability to the attacking country. The disad- vantages are many, including the possibility that assassinations will inspire retaliation, reduce the likelihood of a diplomatic solution, and increase the difficulties international regulators face in monitoring a covert nuclear program. In the abstract, moral and legal strictures also weigh against such assassination efforts. As a practical matter, however, if the existential imperative is present, it will likely trump legal and ethical considerations when a nation contemplates assassinating nuclear scientists.

The question of whether to apply lethal force against scientists is not limited to those working in nuclear weaponry. What if, for instance, the scientists who conducted the experiments  at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, and created lethal mutations in the H5N1 influenza, making it easily spread in humans, were to insist on continuing their research. Say they went into hiding and then offered their mutant virus for sale to nefarious gangs or nasty governments? Would the U.S. or even the World Health Organization be justified in attempting to assassinate them?

Even the adamant hard-liner might resist the siren song of eliminating rogue scientists rather than with attempting to win them over. Here again is the von Braun problem. In science, more knowledge is better than less and, in the end, the conclusion that world-shattering scientific knowledge is being applied to either goof or ill is a matter of perspective. Scientists, in short, may be beyond good or evil, even if, in choosing their teams, they sometimes choose the wrong ones. 

G. Pascal Zachary, a frequent contributor to AlterNet, is the author of Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century.