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Associated Press
September 22, 2001

Assassination Ban Gets New Look


WASHINGTON -- In an earlier time, when the Cold War was hot, the U.S. government tried everything from mob hits to lethal pills to get Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader once bragged of surviving dozens of plots, even one involving "a mask that produces a fungus."

In those fearful times, the government also shipped poison to the Congo intended for independence leader Patrice Lumumba and supplied pistols and carbines to dissidents who shot Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, congressional investigators concluded.

The legacy of those and other abuses is a government ban on assassinations, first issued by President Ford a quarter-century ago and now being re-examined in light of the terrorist attacks that the government believes were engineered by Osama bin Laden. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, asked this week whether the order inhibits the government from targeting terrorists, said, "There is no question that ban does have effects. It restricts certain things that government can and cannot do."

In a CBS-New York Times poll after the attacks, 65 percent of Americans said federal policy should be changed "so the U.S. government can assassinate people in foreign countries who commit terrorist acts."

"People are urgently looking for things to fix," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.

At issue is one sentence of Executive Order 12333 of 1981, an update of Ford's 1976 order that was issued by President Reagan. It states: "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination."

That sentence, seemingly straightforward, is subject to varying interpretations.

In the past 20 years, America has bombed Saddam Hussein's palaces in Iraq, struck at Moammar Gadhafi's tents in Libya and fired cruise missiles into a high-level meeting of Osama bin Laden's organization in Afghanistan that may have included him.

In each case, government officials said the assassination ban had not been violated.

In the case of bin Laden, former President Clinton told reporters after a news conference with New York officials that he had authorized the arrest and killing of bin Laden while in office.

"...We actually made contact with a group in Afghanistan to do it," Clinton said. "They were unsuccessful."

He said the U.S. did not have the intelligence at the time to make its own attempt under contraints that existed. Clinton said support from countries bordering Afghanistan, such as Pakistan, as well as key members of the United Nations, gives the U.S. more tactical options this time around to carry out such a mission.

Clinton told NBC this week the assassination ban doesn't apply to terrorists, only to heads of state.

Duane Clarridge, who worked in Reagan's CIA, recalled that when the Libyan bombing targets were drawn up in 1986, "there was certainly no discussion - or anyone making any smart or ad-lib remarks about hitting Gadhafi's command center - that we might get him." But Clarridge added: "Did we think that was a possibility? I'm sure that we all did." Instead, Gadhafi's infant daughter was killed.

There is ongoing debate about whether the assassination ban would preclude a government-sponsored hit on bin Laden.

"I don't see that it crosses the threshold with respect to assassination," former CIA Director Robert Gates said in an interview. "I make a distinction between military operations and the CIA going out and targeting someone for assassination. In military operations people usually get killed."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters this week the assassination ban "does not limit America's ability to act in its self-defense." Defeating terrorists, he said, could require "acts which involved the lives of others."

Others are quick to add that the assassination ban is government policy, not law, and could be summarily revoked by President Bush, publicly or in secret. But Gates said that would be a mistake, inspired by those looking for a simple solution to a complicated problem.

"We are the most vulnerable country in the world when it comes to our political leadership," he said. "If we abandon a policy that we've had for 26 years, then I think we open ourselves to significant retribution and we'd be sorry we ever did it."

Aftergood of the scientists federation said public interest in lifting the ban "reflects a tendency to overpersonalize our adversary, as if bin Laden the individual were the only enemy that we are fighting. That's a gross exaggeration."

Whatever else may come of debate over lifting the ban, some think the discussion itself may have a good effect.

"Those who sponsor terrorism have to know that they could pay the ultimate price anywhere, anytime, by whatever means," said Bill Taylor, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It ought to cause them to lose a little sleep."

Copyright 2001 Associated Press

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