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The CIA as Executioner

President Obama has openly deployed murder as an instrument of foreign policy. Soon after assuming office, Obama authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to plan and execute the murder of terrorists and other enemies, regardless of whether they are U.S. citizens. Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Muammar Gaddafi are the prominent murder victims while numerous others in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iran, and Pakistan have been purposely targeted and killed. The legitimization of extra-judicial killing is a disturbing development in international law as other nations are certain to follow suit. In pursuit of pre-meditated murders, the collateral damage (the killing of the obviously innocent) has been extensive. The claim that such murders can be executed with electronic precision, though false, serves as an incentive for other nations to develop drones to perpetrate their own surgical assassinations. For now, however, the CIA enjoys the monopoly over drone kills.

Covert Murders

The 1947 National Security Act created the CIA for the purpose of gathering and evaluating information necessary to protect the nation from foreign threats.  Right from the beginning, however, the CIA assumed a proactive role in promoting U.S. economic and military interests. In 1948, the CIA was transformed into a paramilitary organization, empowered under law to engage in “propaganda, economic warfare, sabotage, subversion against hostile states through assistance to underground resistance movements and guerillas.” Ever since, the CIA has engineered world events for U.S. hegemony.

The murder policy under the CIA aegis is by no means an Obama invention. Over the decades, the CIA has spearheaded what Vice President Dick Cheney once described as the “dark side” of the United States. Previously, however, the murders were covert, not to be openly admitted. In the 1960s, the CIA planned the murders of “communists who threatened the free world,” including those of Patrice Lumumba of Congo and Fidel Castro of Cuba. Researchers dispute over whether the CIA participated in Che Guevara’s murder. The evidence is mounting, however, that the CIA head in Bolivia had a “prior agreement or understanding with the Bolivians that Che would be killed if captured.” (See Ratner & Smith, Who Killed Che?: How the CIA Got Away with Murder).

Covert murders were planned to shield the President from the attendant foreign policy fallout and the moral discomfort emanating from cold-blooded strategies. Notably, the President chairs the National Security Council (NSC), the supreme body that empowers the CIA to conduct covert operations. In the early decades, intelligence experts instituted the doctrine of plausible deniability under which the facts of a covert operation were reported to the President in a way that he could deny the knowledge of a murder. The words “killing” or “murder” or “assassination” were rarely used in oral and written memos to the President. For example, Che’s murder was reported to President Johnson as a “stupid murder.” Such wink, wink linguistic deceptions allow the President to occupy the high moral ground and deny that the U.S. “murders” foreign enemies or “tortures” detainees. The President’s veil of deniability was considered necessary to safeguard America’s image as “the city on the hill,” “the beacon of liberty,” “the greatest nation in the world,” etc.

Audacity of Murder

Since the 9/11 attacks, the policy logistics of murder have been dramatically transformed. The doctrine of plausible deniability has been discarded. Moral constraints on killing enemies, including heads of states and governments, have been cast away. The notion of the U.S. as a “moral nation” is now viewed as an impediment in the conduct of international relations. The “dark side” freely informs the foreign policy. The audacity of murder has gained depth and momentum. The President does not think twice about the moral implications of boasting a drone kill.

In a major policy shift, the murder has been institutionalized. Now, the NSC may itself approve a pending murder. Remember the President and statutory members of the NSC (including Secretaries of State and Defense and the CIA Director) watching bin Laden’s murder as it was happening. The NSC released the picture for public consumption, implying that watching the murder of a noted enemy is morally acceptable. Imagine barbarism if this practice is writ large in the world. No one would be surprised if the NSC itself has authorized the murder of Anwar Awlaki, a U.S. citizen or if the NSC itself has authorized the drone attack on the Gaddafi motorcade to flush him out for murder in public view.

These and similar international murders are no longer the CIA secrets that the Senate needs to investigate as it did in the 1970s. This time, the fascination with murder has metastasized. It is bipartisan. Except Ron Paul, Republican Presidential candidates endorse the murder of “terrorists” who threaten “our way of life.” (Juxtapose the historical massacres of Indian “savages” who too threatened “our way of life.”). Upon the execution of a successful murder, President Obama walks to the podium to express joy in a causal tone of voice. Many politicians join the happy hours. Congratulations are exchanged. The corporate media invites the public to celebrate the great news. This is the most vivid moral collapse of a nation that brazenly talks about human rights and universal values. The American people cannot choose to be silent. They must restore the nation’s moral dignity.

Ali Khan is professor of law at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas and the author of A Theory of International Terrorism (2006).

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