Last year, George W. Bush gave the CIA permission to assassinate Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda operatives by labeling them enemy combatants at war with the United States. Some raised eyebrows at this reneging on previous presidential policy, but Bush made a wise decision in light of current international circumstances. The United States is locked in total war with an aggressor who will attack no matter the nature of its enemy’s strategy. By killing the leaders of the operation, it can disable the attack with less loss of life. This is a dangerous route, however, so the U.S. must prepare well for such an operation and keep control of its allies and operatives. Assassination is an acceptable tool of foreign policy which can save lives by averting war, and the United States should use it when at war.
Parts of three different executive orders prohibit political assassinations. Section 5(g) of President Gerald Ford’s Executive Order 11905 (1976) states that “no employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Section 2-305 of Executive Order 12036 (1978) by President Jimmy Carter and Section 2.11 of Executive Order 12333 by President Ronald Reagan reiterated this commitment. This policy has not been addressed by successive presidents or repealed by Congress since, so it is still in effect.
U.S. Representative Bob Barr of Georgia made the most recent challenge of this ban when he introduced the “Terrorist Elimination Act of 2001” on January 3, 2001 to the House Committee on International Relations. The act states that repeal of the policy would help ensure the “swift, sure, and precise action needed by the United States to protect our national security.” It would also eliminate the collateral damage that results from the military’s current, unsuccessful strategy of bombing large areas which are suspected terrorist locations. The measure gained 15 co-sponsors after September 11 but is still dead on the floor of the committee.
Barr’s implication that the ban on assassination promotes the large-scale bombing of random civilian locations has much historical merit. These attacks rarely succeed; one example is the attack on Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi. The Reagan administration had accused Qaddafi of using Soviet money to foster international terrorism, sending assassins to kill the President, and bombing a German discotheque visited by U.S. soldiers. In 1986, the U.S. made a bombing run on Tripoli; the missiles crippled his air force, smashed Qaddafi’s personal compound, and killed his 15-month old daughter but did not harm him or his elite guard. The administration considered the attack a success, but Qaddafi is still in power today.
The United States’ moratorium on covert operations has not deterred other nations from taking the same actions against them. 12 years after Reagan accused Libya of planning to assassinate him, Saddam Hussein’s men tried to kill former President George H.W. Bush. Kuwait broke up the car bomb plot during Bush’s visit to their country April 14-16, 1993. President Bill Clinton blessed Hussein with a “firm and commensurate” response of 23 Tomahawk Missiles on the Iraqi Intelligence Service headquarters, but Hussein had no such luck against President George W. Bush. Bush, who called Hussein “the guy who tried to kill my dad”, declared war on Hussein in the spring of 2003, and the U.S. finally captured him Sunday, December 14, 2003.
Historically, assassination has been a domestic emergency route to remove poor leaders. The Chinese philosopher Mencius said that it is an acceptable response to tyrants because a poor ruler loses his divine right to rule. Cicero defended Caesar’s assassination as a preemptive measure against tyranny:
What can be a greater crime than to kill a man, especially one who is an intimate friend? But is he a criminal who killed a tyrant, even if the tyrant was his friend? It does not seem so to the Roman people, who regard this as the finest of glorious deeds.
Richard Lawrence, a home painter, made the first attempt on the life of a President of the United States. Lawrence confronted Andrew Jackson at Southern Congressman Warren R. Davis’s funeral and fired at him from two different pistols at a distance of eight feet; both misfired. Jackson then beat Lawrence with his cane while others wrestled the attacker to the ground. Jackson construed the attack as a Whig conspiracy to kill him; Whigs claimed Jackson had organized the attack to drum up public sympathy. Neither was correct. Physicians diagnosed Lawrence as a paranoid schizophrenic, and a jury acquitted him of his crimes and confined him to a mental hospital until his death in 1861.
The most important assassination in history was Gavrilo Princip’s attack on Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. Princip was a member of the Serbian nationalist group Black Hand, an underground united led by Serbian Colonel Diagutin Dimitrijevic which recruited students to do its dirty work. Though Ferdinand might have reformed the empire when he took power, Princip could not wait that long. On the way to Sarajevo, he and his cohorts Cabrinovic and Grabez received aid from many Serbo-Croatian sympathizers. Princip shot Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, during a parade, and police foiled his subsequent attempt at suicide. He acknowledged his crime but did not regret it: “I am not a criminal. I have killed a man who has done wrong; I think I have done right.” The three ringleaders received 20 years each of hard labor, had to fast one day per month, and had to serve solitary confinement on the anniversary of the killing. Other members of the plot served life imprisonment or capital punishment. The Black Hand was never implicated for the crime; Princip, Cabrinovic, and Grabez died before World War I ended. This attack triggered that war, which ultimately destroyed Europe’s dominance in world affairs.
Ironically, the concept of assassination and the word itself stems from Islamic culture. The word “assassin” comes from the Arabic word hassa (“to kill or exterminate”) but is similar to the word asas (a holy man associated with a prophet). The first “Assassins” by name were the Isamailis, a faction of Islam that split from Shiism in 760 A.D. In 969, the Ismailis conquered Egypt, set up the Fatima Caliphate, and made Cairo the center of their civilization. Hassan ibn-al-Sabbah created a sub-sect of Ismailism and kept power by training Assassins: young, intelligent men whose craft was swift killing. The Assassins met political demolition in 1186 after their leader, Kukn al-Din Khrushah, surrendered their most powerful fortress, Alamut, to the Mongols, who betrayed them and killed 12,000 surrendering people. The Mongolian historian Juvani said of the Assassins, “Of him and his stock no trace was left, and he and his kindred became but a tale on men’s lips and a tradition in the world.” Though the tribe died, their spirit lived on. Another clan of underground killers was the Thugs, an Indian clan who worshipped Kali, goddess of destruction, and “practiced their brand of murder and robbery according to rigidly prescribed ritual.” The Thugs practiced their brand of murder until the British stamped them out in the 1830s. These groups were precursors to secret agents who also use murder as a tool of statecraft.
Assassination of one country’s political leaders by another became more popular with the advent of total war, in which a nation attacks anything related to its enemy’s army. General William Tecumseh Sherman immortalized this philosophy in his letter to the mayor of Atlanta: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices today than any of you to secure peace.” Soon after, he cut a swath through the South, destroying everything in sight, in his infamous March to the Sea. Today’s premier leaders are a part of the army as commanders-in-chief and are thus subject to attack.
Al Qaeda’s September 11 attack on the World Trade Center was a symbolic act of total war, killing thousands of civilians and toppling one of America’s symbols of economic grandeur. The hijackers also hit the Pentagon, a sign of U.S. military strength, and the fourth plane which crashed in Pennsylvania was meant to destroy the Capitol, a symbol of American democracy. The ubiquity of suicide bombers in Middle Eastern life reveals the depressing truth that thousands of young people can find no better purpose for their lives than to sacrifice it for such a cause. Terrorists will not pull punches; guerrilla attacks have not slowed since Saddam Hussein’s capture. The United States must meet fire with fire.
One possible objection to state-sponsored assassination is that it is immoral for man to decide who deserves to live and who deserves to die. While this is a fair argument, one should not forget that tyranny and war, which injure and kill thousands or millions of people at a time, are even more despicable than the death of one man. Furthermore, the government has a responsibility to do what is best for its people. As Thomas Hobbes writes in his Leviathan, the essence of government is “One Person, of whose Acts a great Multitude, by mutuall Covenants with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedience, for that Peace and Common Defence.” Since the primary goal of man is “self-preservation…that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of Warre,” removing another government’s leader to avert war is a responsible decision.
Wars, as detrimental to civilization as they are, are too often fought for the sake of a few elites; as Remarque remarks in All Quiet on the Western Front, “It is very queer that the unhappiness of the world is so often brought on by small men.” The American Civil War was a perfect example of “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”. Ostensibly, the Southern states seceded from the Union to guarantee their rights to own slaves. Three-quarters of Southerners, however, did not own slaves, and 3.7% of the population owned 58% of them. More than half the people of these states opposed secession, but the decision was made not by them but by their congressional delegates, most of whom owned slaves. Thirst for titles and land fueled the worst of the European wars, including the Thirty Years War, World War I, and World War II. If the United States removed belligerent leaders from power, it could avert full-scale conflict.
The numerous Germans who tried to kill Adolf Hitler had the same idea. Hitler’s several narrow escapes also illustrate the difficulty of killing a leader, even one who is very publicly visible. On November 8, 1939, Hitler departed early from the anniversary part of the Beer Hall Putsch. Twelve minutes later, a bomb planted near the speaker’s platform exploded, killing seven Navis and wounding sixty-three others. The would-be assassin was Johann George Elser, a Swabian cabinetmaker who had set the bomb three days earlier. The Nazis placed Elser in a concentration camp and murdered him April 9, 1945.
The plotters of the 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life were military men who were disillusioned with their leader and hoped to negotiate peace with the Allies after his death. They failure several times, the final one coming after Hitler survived a bomb that exploded in the same room as him, and the schemers failed to follow up on the operation. The Nazi People’s Courts responded with an estimated 1000 arrests and 2000 death sentences. Among those implicated was General Irwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, who had bailed out of the plot early on but received a death sentence from the Nazis. He committed suicide instead.
Another lucky leader was French hero Charles de Gaulle, who survived 31 different attempts on his life. The most serious was an attack by the Organisation de l’Armee Secrete, right-wing terrorists who blamed de Gaulle for the loss of the French colony Algeria. Fifteen members of the OAS were convicted after their second try, a salvo of gunfire on the President’s car which blew out one of its front tires before it escaped. De Gaulle’s only unjiry was a cut finger he sustained after brushing shards of glass off his coat.
Though the deposition of a tyrant is acceptable, the United States should not topple governments simply because they are not democracies. This would recall the senYet these actions also drew harsh criticism for the Jesuits, some of whom taught de rege, the belief that killing a heretical king is honorable.
Such a teaching seems ridiculous in today’s America where the Constitution has guaranteed religious freedom for 227 years. During the Cold War, though, the United States eliminated Communist leaders with dogmatic zeal. In some cases, the CIA supported dictators and overthrew democratically elected leaders simply because of its opposition to Communism. One example is its support for General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup and assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende, who nationalized one billion dollars of American holdings claiming it would free the nation from rule by large landowners and corporations. Pinochet was a ruthless totalitarian who still rules the country today. If the United States wants to remove a leader, it must have a replacement plan which will improve the nation’s situation.
The biggest obstacle to effective assassination policy is the difficulty of finding and killing leaders, particularly dictators. The United Kingdom’s Mirror proved the relative weakness of Western security when it infiltrated Buckingham Palace shortly before President Bush’s visit this November. Dictators like Saddam Hussein, however, have multiple palaces and complex defense strategies, and U.S. efforts to infiltrate these governments have been littered with failures. Reports that Hussein tried to buy uranium from Nigeria for us in nuclear technology were inaccurate. 1,200 CIA operatives are working inside Iraq, but they cannot find the weapons of mass destruction they claim he had. Hussein is now in American custody, but before that he was at large for months. The U.S. cannot kill important figures at the drop of a hat; doing so requires careful planning and a great deal of luck.
One example of a perfectly conceived and executive lethal operation was Spanish Communist Ramon Mercader’s killing of Leon Trotsky. Stalin orchestrated the attempt in response to Trotsky’s ten years of revolt-in-exile. The plot went into motion in 1938 when Mercader courted Sylvia Ageloff, a social worker and assistant to Trotsky. In October of 1939, Mercader moved to Mexico City to get closer to Trotsky. He visited Trotsky’s home every day and met him four days after a May 24, 1940 gunfire attack on the Communist leader’s house. The two were close friends. Then Mercader attacked Trotsky with an axe inside Trotsky’s home. The weapon dug into Trotsky’s skull and split shards of bone into his brain; the Russian fought Mercader until police arrived, and the former died 26 hours later. Mercader spent twenty years in prison in Mexico; police could not formally link him with the Community Party until 1950. Shortly after his release in 1960, he disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. Insidious as Stalin’s plot was, it was an exceptional clandestine operation.
One thing a covert operator needs is tight lips, and one model for discretion is Mehmet Ali Agca, a member of several militant Islamic groups who shot Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981. Agca received life imprisonment and claimed that Bulgarian government officials had given him $1,250,000 to kill the pontiff. Italy took three Bulgarians and four Turks to trial based on Agca’s testimony, but he then devalued his words by claiming he was Jesus Christ and the KGB and CIA were involved. Agca’s claims of Bulgarian and KGB involvement have a ring of truth because of the Pope’s outspoken attacks on Communism, but it seems no one will ever know who plotted the attack. Agca’s ability to keep the secret for 20 years saved the country who hired him, if there were any, from public shaming for trying to kill the pope.
Unfortunately, the need for secrecy and effective use of political back-channels in covert operations would give the U.S. plenty of chances to align itself with disreputable characters. Though occasionally useful, such figures are fraught with peril and ought to be avoided. Operation Mongoose, the CIA-Mafia campaign to kill Fidel Castro, was the CIA’s most notorious failure and the impetus for Gerald Ford’s assassination ban. Using Howard Hughes as a conduit, it recruited Tampa Bay and New York mobs who took the opportunity to hoodwink the FBI and keep their agents from focusing on the mobs’ other illegal activities. Among the considered methods were bombs planted on the ocean floor while Castro skin-dived, stabbing him with a poisoned pen, giving him poisoned cigars, contaminating his clothes with fungus and tubercle bacilli, and infecting his beard so his hair would fall out, which would sully his manhood. Eventually, the government suspected the Mafia was selling information to Castro and pulled the plug on the project. Some suspect the murders of Chicago boss Sam Giancard in 1975 and Johnny Roselli in 1976 were attempts to cover up the scam. Underground crime organizations specialize in deceit; it is not surprise that they would use the government to further their own ends.
The world is a dangerous place. Nineteen hijackers reminded us of this truth on September 11, 2001, and President Bush’s policy since then has reflected an adaptation to changing circumstances. His revival of government assassination policy is one example. The killing of terrorist leaders is a cruel necessity in a time of total war. As long as the government does not overextend itself or lose control of its agents, lethal covert operations will be a boon to fighting the war on terror. Assassination is a foreign policy tool that can be of great use to the United States and its people.
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