When Frontier Justice Becomes Foreign Policy

The New York Times, July 13, 2003

American intelligence organizations and military forces, once forbidden from attempts to assassinate foreign leaders by the executive orders of two recent presidents, have now embarked on an open, all-out effort to find and kill Saddam Hussein in a campaign with no precedents in American history.

Despite three strikes aimed at Mr. Hussein since the opening night of the American war on Iraq, intelligence officials have conceded that a recent broadcast of Mr. Hussein’s voice is probably genuine. A concession that the Iraqi leader remains alive is also implicit in Washington’s offer of a $25 million reward for his capture or proof of his death.

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Since President Bush announced the end of major military operations on May 1, it has become increasingly clear that the Iraq war is not over, that there is a concerted campaign of resistance and that Mr. Hussein remains a formidable foe. Over the last 10 days the chief American official in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, has frequently stressed the importance of capturing or killing Mr. Hussein.

The campaign to kill him, frankly admitted and discussed by high officials in the White House, Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency, has committed the United States for the first time to public, personalized, open-ended warfare in the classic mode of Middle Eastern violence — an eye for an eye, a life for a life.

American officials in the White House and Iraq have argued that Mr. Hussein’s survival encourages resistance, and killing him is therefore a legitimate act of war. But the United States has never before openly marked foreign leaders for killing. Treating it as routine could level the moral playing field and invite retaliation in kind, and makes every American official both here and in the Middle East a target of opportunity.

Realists may scoff that war is war and that things have always been this way, but in fact personalized killing has a way of deepening the bitterness of war without bringing conflict closer to resolution. In April 1986 President Reagan authorized an air raid on the home of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya that spared him but killed his daughter. The Reagan administration never acknowledged that Colonel Qaddafi, personally, was the target, nor did it publicly speculate two years later that Libya’s bombing of an American jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, was Colonel Qaddafi’s revenge for the death of his daughter. But the administration got the message: after Lockerbie, Washington relied on legal action to settle the score.

It is impossible to know how, or if, Mr. Hussein’s supporters will find a way to retaliate for the American campaign to kill the deposed Iraqi leader, but that effort inevitably reopens a long-simmering American argument over assassination, never embraced openly in so many words but never repudiated once and for all. Despite much tough talk of killing enemies since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration still shrinks from using the word assassination, and much of the public continues to oppose it as both dangerous and wrong — dangerous because it commits the United States to a campaign of murder and countermurder, and wrong because hunting people down, however it plays in the movies, excuses murder by calling it something else.

Mr. Hussein himself doubtless understands the first argument, since the man leading the effort to kill him now — President Bush — is the son of a man Mr. Hussein tried to have murdered a decade ago.

In the middle of the last century, at the height of the cold war, the United States often wished, sometimes planned and occasionally took concrete steps to kill foreign leaders. The best known of its targets was Fidel Castro.

At least three of the marked men were actually killed — Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and Abdul Karim Kassem of Iraq — but apparently none were killed, or at least not provably, by Washington.

Unlike current efforts, these plots were wrapped in deepest secrecy and vigorously denied until the facts were finally exhumed by a Senate investigation under Senator Frank Church in 1976. The difference now is that the administration has quit arguing the rights and wrongs of killing enemies, and makes plain its determination to kill Mr. Hussein if he can be found.

Killing him appears to be the primary task of a secretive military organization known as Task Force 20. Loosely attached to the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division, Task Force 20 can and does draw on the resources of the entire American military and intelligence community. On June 18 it conducted a combined air and ground attack on what has been described as a convoy of S.U.V.’s in western Iraq as it allegedly made a dash for the Syrian border. Five Syrian border guards were wounded and briefly detained, but the Pentagon has declined to say how and especially where — inside Iraq, or inside Syria?

“Removing Saddam” has been the stated goal of the administration for more than a year, and last fall Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said war with Iraq could be avoided at “the cost of one bullet.” This open discussion of killing Mr. Hussein marks a profound retreat from the longstanding insistence that the United States did not and would not use assassination as a tool of state. The revelations by the Church committee in 1976 that the C.I.A. had plotted to kill several foreign opponents including Mr. Castro was described as an aberration; supporters of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy insisted they had authorized nothing of the kind, and official efforts to pinpoint responsibility never went further than the words of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, who told a Senate investigating committee, “I just can’t understand how it could have happened.”

Executive orders banning assassination issued by Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, prompted by public dismay over the poisoned cigars and exploding seashells intended for Mr. Castro, have never been formally revoked. Mr. Reagan’s order flatly states that “no person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”

Taking this order literally, President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, asked the F.B.I. in 1995 to investigate possible criminal charges (later dropped) against the C.I.A. officer Robert Baer for his efforts to organize a coup that might have ended with the killing of Mr. Hussein. President Bush, in contrast, personally approved the attempt to kill him, without feeling the need to explain why Mr. Hussein was no longer protected by President Reagan’s prohibition and without being asked to do so by Congress.

Can it still be called assassination if it is carried out in wartime? Does a White House decision to attack Iraq make it “a war,” and thereby turn Mr. Hussein into a legitimate target? Old hands in the intelligence business say that legal questions raised by the deliberate killing of named individuals, the core definition of assassination, are less important than practical matters.

In moments of heat during the cold war, many enemies of the United States were suggested as targets of assassination. Wise heads often urged second thoughts because an assassin, once the deed had been committed, would be in a position to extort blackmail — or worse, suffer an attack of conscience and go to the newspapers.

Two arguments were regularly cited by those who counseled restraint. The first was implicit in the unwritten cold war rule against killing intelligence officers or political leaders: two can play that game, and once started it is hard to control, as Americans learned in the Lockerbie bombing. Mr. Hussein is not the only figure in danger of sudden death in Iraq at the moment, and it is a tossup who is in greater danger — Mr. Hussein or Paul Bremer?

But the final argument against assassination, often noted by American intelligence officers, was the most practical — you might get rid of public enemy No. 1, but who would take his place? Mr. Bremer has cited the survival of Mr. Hussein as a kind of psychological barrier, scaring off some Iraqis who might be willing to work with the Americans, and inspiring others to go on fighting.

But how can Washington be sure that killing Mr. Hussein will be a change for the better? Success might only clear the path for another Iraqi leader, just as intransigent but free of Mr. Hussein’s terrible burden of decades of crime against his own people.

Like most questions in wartime, this one is impossible to answer in advance. The administration clearly thinks there is more to be gained than lost, and the public, so far, appears content to wait and see.

Thomas Powers writes frequently about intelligence issues. His most recent book is “Intelligence Wars: American Secret History From Hitler to Al Qaeda

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday July 14, 2003.
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