No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or
conspire to engage in, political assassination.
--Executive Order 11905, signed by President Gerald Ford (February 18, 1976)
No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government
shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.
--Executive Order 12333, signed by President Ronald Reagan (December 4, 1981)
In December 28 of last year, former U.S. Labor Secretary (and national editor
of TAP) Robert B. Reich told the audience of CNN's Crossfire that he
hoped upcoming confirmation hearings of Bush appointees would not be a study in
"the politics of character assassination." It seems that Reich's last word may
have lodged itself a bit too literally in the mind of his guest that night, Bob
Barr, Congressman of Georgia, because six days later, the ultraconservative
Republican Barr introduced a piece of House legislation designated as HR 19. Its
aim: Restore the currently illegal use of assassination as a tool of U.S. foreign
While grandiloquent posing is a common affliction of legislative titles, it's
rare that one is as to the point as Barr's "Terrorist Elimination Act of 2001."
Save the second word, however, HR 19 is masterfully Orwellian; nowhere in the
bill's paltry text do precise-but-messy words like "assassination," "death,"
"liquidation," or even the more benign "neutralization" appear. The only
reference made to them is oblique and indirect, in the bill's final section,
which calls for the nullification of the pertinent presidential executive orders
that explicitly ban assassination.
Instead, using classic right-wing political correctese, Barr coins a new
euphemism for murder-as-statecraft: "swift, sure, and precise action needed by
the United States to protect our national security." The presidential bans on
assassination, the bill holds, have unduly limited "effective ways to combat the
menace posed by those who would murder American citizens simply to make a
political point." Indeed, HR 19 laments that "on several occasions the military
has been ordered to use a military strike hoping to remove a terrorist leader who
has committed crimes against the United States," only to meet with a lack of
success. With the passage of HR 19, the swift, sure, and precise action that "our
country must maintain" would be restored--though it will only be used, Barr
assures us, "sparingly."
Barr's understanding of history is weak. Though assassinations were historically
the province of the civilian Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Barr says
previous orders have "severely limited the use of the military [emphasis
added]" in the hit department. Furthermore, Barr seems to have failed to grasp
the fundamental fact of U.S.-sponsored assassinations: They usually fail--worse,
whatever their outcome, their aftermath ultimately undermines foreign
relations. "We really haven't been doing diplomacy well for a long time," says
Melvin Goodman, a former senior analyst on the CIA's Soviet desk who is now a
professor at the National Defense University. "Things like an assassination
policy only make it worse. Every time we have done something like this in the
past, it's gained us nothing but ill will in the rest of the world. Unless you
can really control the succession of events that happens after an assassination
or coup, maybe you can justify this in extreme situations. But from Africa to
Vietnam to Chile to Cuba, all we've done is made bad situations far worse."
In the World War II heyday of the CIA's forerunner, the Office of
Strategic Services (OSS), assassination was a much more palatable, and even
practical, method for dealing with the Nazis and their collaborators; a
convincing case can be made, for example, that if the OSS hadn't taken out
Vichy's Admiral Jean François Darlan, the Allies never would have gotten a
foothold in North Africa. But in the 15 years following World War II, the nascent
Central Intelligence Agency shied away from practice. While it had no compunction
about orchestrating coups that might result in the death of a foreign leader,
actually pulling the trigger was something to be avoided.
That changed with the ascension of John F. Kennedy to the presidency. Obsessed
with eliminating Castro, Kennedy told the CIA to be as creative as possible.
Reading over now-declassified documents, it's hard not to chortle at the myriad
options the CIA considered in the service of taking out the Cuban leader:
exploding and toxin-spiked cigars, exploding conch shells, even a wet suit
slathered with fungus spores. Langley's operatives start to seem less like steely
agents and more like Maxwell Smart. But however Keystone Kopsish they may have
been, the numerous attempts to kill Castro have made rapprochement with Cuba
virtually impossible. "Suppose," Jonathan Kwitny wrote in Endless Enemies,
his book about U.S.foreign-policy ineptitude, "Castro was behind the
assassination of John Kennedy. Would Kennedy and the people of the United States
have a just complaint, considering what we tried seventeen times to do to
Castro?" The point is that assassinations only exacerbate international problems
by encouraging escalation. Look at Israel: Whether hits were carried out by the
paramilitary Irgun or Stern Gang at odds with the early Israeli government or--in
later years--by the government itself, it's hard to make the case that
assassinations of Palestinians have made Israel a safer place.
Assassinations, both failed and successful, also complicated affairs in
Indochina. A CIA operative from 1952 to 1962, Paul Sakwa ended his career as
chief of covert operations for Vietnam. He was effectively bounced out of the
agency for critiquing its approach to Vietnam, including its role in fomenting
the fatal coup against the Diem brothers and setting up the infamous Phoenix
program, an assassination program that extrajudicially killed at least 20,000
Vietnamese civilians. Years later, Father Robert Drinan--then a U.S.
congressman--would cross paths with Sakwa during his own investigation of
Phoenix, and both ended up testifying against the confirmation of CIA Director
William Colby, who set up Phoenix. "You don't use the word assassination when
you've killed tens of thousands of people--that's a massacre," seethes Sakwa, now
a retired pensioner living in Washington, D.C.
After leaving the CIA, Sakwa was hired by the State Department's Bureau of
Intelligence and Research. Coming out of State's main entrance one evening in
1962 , Sakwa bumped into an effusive Larry Devlin, an old colleague from the
CIA's French desk and now chief of the agency's Kinshasa station in Congo. When
he asked Devlin why he was so happy, Sakwa was sickened by Devlin's response: He
began to brag gleefully about having arranged the assassination of Congolese
leader Patrice Lumumba.
Originally, Devlin had planned to take out Lumumba himself, using a poison gun
developed by the notorious head of the agency's Technical Services Division, Dr.
Sidney Gottlieb. (Obsessed with finding ways to control and incapacitate
potential targets, the late Gottlieb stands as another good reason to forgo
assassinations: Most of his experiments were performed on unwitting American
citizens, and one, Dr. Frank Olson, killed himself while under the influence of
LSD.) Before Devlin could do the deed himself, native Congolese killed the
nationalist leader. But as John Stockwell, head of the CIA's Angola task force,
noted when he resigned in 1978, "Eventually we learned that Lumumba was killed,
not by our poisons, but beaten to death apparently by men who were loyal to men
who had Agency cryptonyms and received Agency salaries. In death he became an
eternal martyr and by installing Mobutu in the Zairian presidency, we committed
ourselves to the other side, the losing side in Central and Southern Africa."
Assassination, Stockwell said, is one of the ways the United States cast itself
in foreign affairs as a "dull-witted Goliath in a world of eager young Davids."
The significance of Barr's bill is not so much that it provides yet
more evidence (as if we needed any) that he's a right-wing loon--his proposal has
not attracted a single co-sponsor from either party, and the chances of it even
getting a hearing this session are slim. The really disturbing question is this:
What does it say about both the anemia and the hubris of U.S. foreign policy
today that Barr believes assassination-asforeign-policy actually has a serious
constituency. "We have a habit of approaching foreign policy as, we will do what
we want to, regardless of obvious realities," sighs the National Defense
University's Goodman. "If this includes going back to assassination, it shows a
real desperation in U.S. policy." Father Drinan, now at Georgetown University Law
Center, agrees. "You can't kill an idea by killing the person. If he has a
constituency, they'll be inflamed at what you've done, whether they realize it at
the time or find out for sure later. It's counterproductive in so many ways. You
just end up creating new monsters and new problems."