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September 18, 2001

Changing U.S. Assassination Policy Called Useless

By Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Calls to untie the CIA's hands in hiring shady agents and lift a ban on assassinations after the shattering attack on the United States are at best meaningless and at worst could mar core U.S. principles rather than root out terrorism, analysts said.

In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington, a rallying cry has emerged for loosening restrictions on the spy agency's recruiting of foreign agents and lifting the assassination ban to help fight terrorism.

But analysts say taking both those actions would essentially be meaningless because the restriction on the CIA is merely a bureaucratic gesture and has no impact on the way it operates, and killing is allowed in a war scenario regardless of the assassination ban.

"This is much ado about very little," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists project on government secrecy. "It's more or less irrelevant because the guidelines are not a constraint."

President Bush declared a war on terrorism after last week's assault by hijackers who commandeered commercial airlines and slammed them into targets symbolic of U.S. financial and military might. More than 5,000 people are dead or missing.

The White House said the presidential directive banning assassinations issued in 1976 by President Gerald Ford would not prevent Washington from acting in self-defense.

Analysts pointed out that the assassination ban did not prevent the Reagan administration from dropping bombs on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's home in 1986 in retaliation for the bombing of a Berlin discotheque frequented by U.S. troops.

And the Clinton administration fired cruise missiles at suspected guerrilla camps in Afghanistan in 1998 after the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.

U.S. officials say Saudi Arabian-born exile Osama bin Laden is the prime suspect in last week's attack. The United States has also accused him in the plotting of the 1998 embassy bombings.


The momentum behind giving CIA greater leeway to conduct covert operations is a total pendulum swing from decades of the American public and lawmakers trying to limit the powers of a spy agency they sometimes considered renegade.

Just this summer details emerged about the CIA's ties to former Peruvian intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, who was the alleged mastermind of a web of corruption and is jailed in Lima on charges ranging from operating death squads, gunrunning, embezzlement and money laundering.

The Washington-based Center for Public Integrity has said the CIA gave $10 million in cash to Montesinos over a decade-long relationship established by the United States to fight cocaine trafficking.

The CIA policy on foreign agents that some advocate loosening was established in 1995 and requires that case officers get management approval before recruiting foreign agents who are human rights violators.

It stemmed from the revelation that a Guatemalan military officer on the U.S. spy agency's payroll was linked to the torture and killing of a leftist guerrilla married to American lawyer Jennifer Harbury.

"The guidelines require field officers to obtain prior headquarters approval before establishing a relationship with an individual who had committed serious crimes, human rights abuses, or other repugnant acts," CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said. "However we have never turned down a field request to recruit an asset in a terrorist organization," he said.

"Greater flexibility for emergency circumstances where lives are imminently in danger, such as acts of terrorism" may be necessary in the policy, Harbury said. But that flexibility should not be extended to covert operations trying to inflict U.S. political will on another state, she said.


Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said the CIA policy does create "at least some check against working with people and paying people who are engaged in horrific abuses that the United States government otherwise works to end."

Analysts opposed lifting the assassination ban, saying the United States should not legitimize such activity as a political tool and it could open the door to reprisals.

"Part of the problem is a semantic one, if we are at war we don't have to think about assassination, and if we are not at war, assassination is not the right tool either," Aftergood said.

Rather than working to loosen restrictions that have little impact on fighting terrorism, what is important is gaining a better understanding of what happened, he said.

"If this is simply a matter of 50 or 100 individuals it may be that we are confronting the limits of what intelligence can achieve," Aftergood said.

"Because we cannot expect to have an agent in every group of 100 angry men around the world," he added.

Copyright 2001 Reuters Limited

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