Should western democracies stoop to the same tactics, ordering assassinations?
Immediately following the 9/11 attacks on new York and Washington, D.C., it seems that President George W. Bush authorised the then DCI, George Tenet, to assemble a team of hitmen to hunt down and kill those responsible for the atrocity.
This was somewhat reminiscent of Golda Meir’s directive to Mossad following the massacre of eleven Israeli athlete at the 1972 Munich Olympics to trace and eliminate the Black September terrorists involved. As it turned out, the CIA abandoned the plan on practicality grounds, and the project was never reported to Congress.
Apparently Leon Panetta, when appointed to his post as the CIA’s director, also confirmed the termination of the classified operation and then told the House and Senate oversight committees, which are now indignant that they were not informed when the plan was initiated.
The CIA’s argument is that there is no obligation for the Agency to consult the politicians when plans are made. Once a project moves to action, the law requires that Congress must be told “in a timely fashion”.
Three issues arise out of this mess. Firstly, was the president entitled to order assassinations in apparent breach of the previous ban on such “executive action” which dates back to President Gerald Ford? The answer is that, in a time of war, the president can issue legally virtually any order, and in almost any circumstances he can change or suspend Ford’s Executive Directive 11905 of February 1976.
Secondly, are the relevant committees entitled to complain about the lack of consultation? Alas, the political atmosphere on the Hill has so deteriorated that politicians have seized on the CIA’s alleged omission to bolster claims that the previous administration routinely misled Congress.
With echoes of Speaker Nancy Pellosi’s recent charges of having been deceived by CIA briefers over the introduction of enhanced interrogation techniques, it rather looks as though the Agency has become a surrogate target for political snipers. But from what has emerged thus far, George Tenet was under no obligation to discuss what were purely planning options with the committee members.
The third issue concerns the efficacy of assassination as an instrument of political power. Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadaffi found it helpful to eliminate their opponents sheltering overseas, just as Stalin ordered Trotsky’s murder in Mexico in August 1940. Todor Zhivkov demanded the death of Georgi Markov in 1978, and more recently Alexander Litvinenko was the victim of a toxin, polonium-210, perhaps administered by one of his former FSB colleagues.
But should western democracies stoop to the same tactics? Anthony Eden ordered SIS to kill Gamal Abdel Nasser in Cairo and then the EOKA leader George Grivas in Cyprus, but neither plot went ahead. We know that President Eisenhower’s request to poison Patrice Lumumba was turned down by the CIA’s station chief in the Congo, Larry Devlin, and that neither the Pike nor Church committees could pin a single assassination on the CIA although the cases of Rafael Trujilo, Ngo Dinh Diem and General René Schneider were studied in detail.
When the Kennedy brothers instructed the CIA to eliminate Fidel Castro the CIA turned to Bill Harvey, then considered “the Agency’s James Bond” to undertake the task, but he sub-contracted the assignment to his pal Johnny Rosselli and the mafia. The result, of course, is that Fidel is still alive, although Rosselli wound up in a refrigerator off the coast of Palm Beach.
There are two aspects to assassination. One is the Hollywood myth, often adopted by fantasists who occasionally persuade gullible publishers to peddle their fiction dressed up as fact. A recent example is Roland W. Haas, the author of Enter the Past Tense: My Secret Life as a CIA Assassin, in which he asserts that he killed no less than eighteen people while acting as a CIA hitman.
Another book in the same vein, Vengeance, by the Canadian journalist George Jonas, purported to tell the authentic story of a Mossad gunman named Avner who claimed to have been part of the team deployed against Black September.
This tale was accepted by the movie director Steven Spielberg who in 2005 based Munich on Avner’s version, which was actually entirely bogus. It may be that fictional books and films have had a much greater and undesirable impact on the west’s political leadership, leading some to believe that all intelligence agencies regard murder as a routine stock-in-trade.
The reality of assassination is that it is fraught with political danger, as Mossad discovered in July 1974 at Lillehammer, Norway, when an innocent Moroccan waiter was shot in a case of mistaken identity. The gunmen thought Ahmed Bouchili was really the notorious Black September terrorist Ali Hassan Salameh, and five Israelis were convicted of murder and imprisoned. Another, working at the embassy in Oslo, was expelled because he enjoyed diplomatic immnity.
In a further fiasco, an attempt in Amman on the life of the Hamas leader Khalid Michal in 1997 resulted in the capture of two of the Mossad putative assassins, ‘Shawn Kendall’ and ‘Barry Beads’, who carried Canadian passports.
Both were arrested by the Jordanian Mukhabarat and held hostage while an embarrassed Prime Minister Benyamin Netenyahu negotiated their release with the delivery of an antidote for the poison administered to Khalid. The humiliating debacle ended with the release of dozens of convicted Palestinian terrorists and their imprisoned leader Sheikh Yassin.
Such incidents illustrate the international ramifications of a bungled plot, but it is also true that an undetected murder, or a death that is attributed to natural causes, can be very attractive. Mossad undoubtedly chose the virtually undocumented levofentamyl because it was untraceable, just as the KGB’s Nikolai Khokhlov had been equipped with a cyanide gas gun to assassinate Ukrainian nationalists in 1954.
Any post-mortem examination would have shown the cause of death to have been heart failure, thereby concealing the crime, and that may have been part of the motive for employing polonium-210 against Litvinenko.
In all these episodes, a detailed forensic investigation not only revealed the true cause, but exposed the extraordinary sophistication of the toxin, thereby incriminating a state actor rather than a private individual. Thus an effort to conceal the crime ended up with far wider consequences.
The paradox of the furore over the CIA’s assassination programme is that the use of Predator unmanned aerial vehicles armed with Hellfire missiles has proved highly effective. Just as the Israelis adopted an official policy of assassination to decimate the Hamas leadership, firing missiles into Gaza from helicopters, so the Americans came to rely on UAVs controlled from Central Command HQ in Tampa, Florida, to vapourise vehicles known to be carrying high-value Al-Qaida targets.
So why should the CIA be condemned for assassination plans never executed, while allowing the incursions into Yemeni, Syrian and Pakistani airspace to continue? The partisan nature of the hypocrisy is almost tangible.