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The old joke goes that in the waning days of the Second World War, when Hitler was told of yet another defeat on the battlefield, he slammed his fist into his desk and declared: “That does it! No more Mr. Nice Guy!”
We’ve been treated in the past couple of weeks to one press story after another about how the Bush administration seeks to “unleash” the CIA from its restrictions concerning things like political assassination and dealing with “unsavory” characters. The nature of the September 11 attack was such, we are told, that we have to remove our kid gloves and put on depleted-uranium-tipped brass knuckles.
The policies whose “revisions” are being discussed and leaked are principally a 25-year ban on the CIA and other agencies of the government from engaging in assassination, and a policy of the past five years or so of barring the CIA from employing real nasty killers and torturers abroad, or at least not without express approval from high up.
Why are they telling us these tales at this time? Is it to comfort the American public into believing that the government is holding nothing back in its campaign of making us more secure? Or can they actually believe that such announcements will put the fear of Allah in the Taliban leadership?
The fact is that since Gerald Ford signed a presidential order in 1976, which stated that “No employee of the United States shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination”, the United States has plotted, on more than a dozen occasions, to administer what the CIA at one time called “suicide involuntarily administered”. The last known attempt was the firing of missiles into the home of Slobodan Milosevic in 1999; amongst other attempts during this period was the arranging by the CIA, in 1985, for a car bomb to kill one sheikh Fadlallah in Beirut; 80 people were killed in the explosion, the sheikh not being among their number.
Moreover, in 1984, President Reagan cancelled his own executive order, which had reiterated Ford’s, with a new order which was actually called by the press a “license to kill” — a license to kill anyone deemed a “terrorist”. After the Fadlallah travesty, the license to kill was cancelled, only to be reinstated a few months later following a hijacking of a TWA plane.
President Bush, the elder, added a new twist in 1989. He issued a “memorandum of law” that would allow “accidental” killing if it was a byproduct of legal action: “A decision by the President to employ overt military force … would not constitute assassination if U.S. forces were employed against the combatant forces of another nation, a guerrilla force, or a terrorist or other organization whose actions pose a threat to the security of the United States.” In other words, assassination was okay as long as we said “oops!”
It can thus be seen that all this talk we are being fed of late about giving the CIA “new” powers to engage in “targeted killings” is little more than spin, the native language of politicians.
The same can be said for the public now being told that because of the terrorist crisis, the CIA is going to be allowed to revert to the good ol’ days when they could cozy up to the most despicable human rights violators without getting permission from headquarters. It’s hard to imagine that in recent years that even if an Agency officer felt moved to ask for such permission that it would have been refused. A CIA officer could not have set foot in Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, Kosovo or Croatia without tripping over an unindicted war criminal-cum-US ally. As I write this, the Agency is sleeping with the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan, a band of torturers, kidnappers and rapists so depraved that the people of Afghanistan at first welcomed the Taliban as heroes for conquering these worthies.
To top it all off, we are told that the finest legal minds of the Justice Department, State Department, Pentagon, etc. have put their fine minds together and have decided that the new marching orders are — will wonders never cease? — LEGAL!
All these announcements are designed not only to make Americans feel safer, but to give us a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling that our leaders are so honorable that they engage in protracted debates and soul searching before endorsing any policies not fit for our children’s schoolbooks.
William Blum is the author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II and Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower.