A time to kill? Assassination: Epidemic of confirmed and suspected terrorism has U.S. wondering whether to use an old tactic in response.

August 04, 1996|By Jeff Stein

YOU COULD ALMOST hear the jaw muscles flexing grimly when President Clinton and his national security advisers sat down to discuss the downing of TWA Flight 800.

Even in the secure Situation Room of the White House basement, it's unlikely anyone uttered the word, but it may well have been on the lips of a few people ringed around the oak table: assassination.

Payback. Pre-empt. Counter-terror. Swift justice. Call it by any other name, but it's an option on the mind of many Americans after a spate of recent bombings, particularly the downing of TWA Flight 800, in which terrorists are increasingly suspected.

Is it time to put guns in roses, to hit back with car bombs, exploding telephones, and silencers? The public rage is palpable.

Assassination was once a commonplace - if unacknowledged - tool of U.S. political and military leaders. The Congo's Patrice Lumumba was a target, so was the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo. South Vletnam's Ngo Dlnh Diem and Chile's Salvador Allende were snuffed out in U.S.-backed coups d'etat. Poisons, drugs, and dart guns, it seemed, were as common as paper cups at the CIA.

But "termination with extreme prejudice," in reality, was practiced mostly at lower levels, against communist or suspected communist agitators in the Third World. In Indonesia, the CIA helped organize "hit squads" to take out anti-Sukarno radicals. In Bolivia, U.S. Green Berets helped track down Ernesto "Che" Guevara. In Vietnam, the CIA and Pentagon invented the Phoenix Program to "neutralize" Viet Cong cadres.

And in Panama, the United States had an assassination plan code-named "Key Cities," which, in the event of an anti-U.S. coup, called for Green Berets to "eliminate left-wing politicians, labor leaders, known communists, and Marxist reporters," according to former Special Forces Capt. Budge Williams, who worked on the program.

By the end of the 1960s, however, America's enthusiasm for covert action was waning. Officials were worried that condoning assassinations could land them in jail. When Budge Williams and two other Green Berets executed a suspected North Vietnamese spy in 1969, they were arrested and charged with murder. The disaffection with James Bond continued with Watergate and congressional hearings on CIA murder plots. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford issued an executive order stating: "No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination."

The Senate committee that investigated CIA plots proposed an important loophole allowing the assassination of foreign leaders in time of war, but it was rejected.

But 15 years of terrorist attacks - the suicide bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, airline hijackings, the Achille Lauro, the World Trade Center bombing, the bombing of Pan Am 103, the recent attacks on U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia, and now, the speculation that a bomb brought down TWA Flight 800 - have provoked nostalgia for the good old days of executive action.

"I'm not at all opposed to appropriate retaliation when we find state-sponsored terrorism," William Webster, the former FBI and CIA director, said in a televised interview.

But should the United States start "whacking" terrorists with car bombs and silencers? Is it legal, moral? Or are there better ways to deal with the plague of international thugs?

The assassination of terrorists is morally defensible, argues Louis Rene Beres, professor of international law at Purdue University. "Punishment of violent crime is always at the very heart of justice, and in our decentralized system of world law, self-help by individual nations is often the only available path.

"In the absence of assassinations," Beres wrote recently, "terrorists like [Palestinian Yechya] Ayyash," recently killed by an exploding telephone, thought to have been planted by the Israelis, "would remain altogether free. Immune to the proper expectations of extradition and prosecution - the preferred mechanism of enforcement under international law - these terrorists would continue to murder innocent men, women and children without interference."

Actually, the United States never gave up its capability to shoot, poison, strangle, or garrote human targets, intelligence sources say, although hundreds of CIA covert action specialists were put on the shelf at the beginning of the Carter administration.

After the 444-day Iranian hostage ordeal, however, the United States got serious about its commando units. Delta teams, Navy SEALs, Air Commandos, and Army Green Berets - masters of the deadly arts - were retooled to handle a wider range of missions, including "snatches" and assassinations of terrorists.

In 1991, "I saw a videotape presentation that outlines U.S. capabilities - by deep-, deep-level Green Beret units - to carry out assassination," says a former CIA officer, who approves of having the capability.

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