With CHARLIE HARPER
JOAN and her friend Marilyn were in her New York City kitchen, warding off the unseasonable chill outside with steaming mugs of coffee. They were talking about the world’s current number one bogeyman.
“Hey Mar, I have to say, I’m starting to wonder why the CIA doesn’t just figure out a way to get rid of Vladimir Putin. People all around the world think the American spy agency can do whatever it wants to do. It has money, secret support from various Congressional committees in Washington, and relationships secured with money or dirty tricks all around the world.
“I wish Joe Biden would just give them the word to kidnap or otherwise remove Putin from his Kremlin throne. Maybe even assassinate him. This guy is pushing the world toward what they used to call mutual assured destruction. Surely some of those clever government lawyers can concoct a rationale for removing Putin. Tell me I’m wrong here.”
Marilyn looked over at her friend. “I assume you’re serious, Joanie.” Joan nodded affirmatively. “And that you’re asking me because I used to work in Washington.” Another positive shake of the head.
“OK. Here’s why the CIA doesn’t just go into Russia and take out Putin. It would be illegal, immoral and ultimately unwise. And it probably wouldn’t work anyway.” Here’s what Marilyn told her friend.
This is a story that goes back over 50 years. In February 1976, then-President Gerald Ford issued a document called Executive Order 11905, which prohibited any member of the US government from engaging or conspiring to engage in any political assassination anywhere in the world.
Ford’s order came largely as the result of a truly blue-ribbon Senate panel that had investigated American government involvement in several assassination plots under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson that had come to light and embarrassed Washington. Those plots came to light partly as the result of the Watergate investigation into political skulduggery by Richard Nixon and his staff. That misbehaviour included spying on anti-war Americans by the CIA, which violated the agency’s charter.
That Senate select committee included some of the giants of the Senate. The chair was Frank Church, a confirmed internationalist and Democrat from Idaho. His vice-chair was the redoubtable John Tower of Texas, a Republican hawk who was the first Republican Senator from Texas in over 90 years when he won a special election to succeed Vice President-elect Lyndon Johnson in 1961. Other members included future and past presidential candidates Howard Baker of Tennessee, Barry Goldwater of Arizona, Gary Hart of Colorado and Walter Mondale of Minnesota.
In its report, the committee said it “needs no more information to be convinced that a flat ban against assassination should be written into law. We condemn assassination and reject it as an instrument of American policy. Surprisingly, however, there is presently no statute making it a crime to assassinate a foreign official outside the United States.”
The committee’s report offered many of the first public details of US Government involvement in assassination plans against five foreign leaders. The first of these was Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of what is now the central African nation called the Democratic Republic of Congo that has also been called Zaire and emerged as independent from Belgian colonial rule in 1960. As the UN and other Western nations tried to get accustomed to the end of centuries of European domination in Africa, Lumumba’s fierce personality and friendliness with the USSR caught the eye of American CIA director Allen Dulles.
The Senate committee found that “it is clear that the Director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles, authorized an assassination plot. There is, however, no evidence of United States involvement in bringing about the death of Lumumba at the hands of Congolese authorities.”
Next on the prospective American hit list was someone closer to home. Fidel Castro’s successful Cuban revolution alarmed Dulles and other Eisenhower administration hawks and American uneasiness about Castro continued under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The 1975 Senate committee reported that “we have found concrete evidence of at least eight plots involving the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro from 1960 to 1965. The proposed assassination devices ran the gamut from high-powered rifles to poison pills, poison pens, deadly bacterial powders, and other devices which strain the imagination.”
Later, Castro is reported to have said that “if surviving assassinations were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal.”
Next on the CIA’s reported hit list was Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled that nation for 30 years until he was assassinated in 1961. The CIA didn’t actually kill Trujillo, whose regional rivalries disrupted America’s “back yard” and unsettled US policymakers as Castro did.
The Senate committee found that “though there is no evidence that the United States instigated any assassination activity against Trujillo, certain evidence tends to link United States officials to the assassination plans.
“The day before the assassination a cable, personally authorized by President Kennedy, was sent to the United States’ Consul General in the Dominican Republic stating that the United States Government, as a matter of general policy, could not condone political assassination, but the same time indicating the United States continued to support the dissidents and stood ready to recognize them in the event they were successful in their endeavour to overthrow Trujillo.”
Further away, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were assassinated during a coup by Vietnamese generals on November 2, 1963. The Senate committee reported “evidence before the Committee indicates that the United States government offered encouragement for the coup, but neither desired nor was involved in the assassinations.”
That coup in Saigon was a pivotal event in intensifying American involvement in Vietnam and soon led the US much deeper into its disastrous Vietnam War, which didn’t end until 1975 and nearly tore America apart.
That war’s effects are still being felt today.
Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile in 1970. An avowed socialist-Marxist, he made Washington uneasy. He ruled for three tumultuous years before a military coup toppled him.
The Senate committee found “there is no question that the CIA received a direct instruction from President Nixon on September 15, 1973 to attempt to foment a coup. But the Cold War setting in which these assassination plots took place does not change our view that assassination is unacceptable in our society.”
In its final report, the Senate committee concluded that “such activities (as assassination plots) are almost always eventually revealed. The damage to American foreign policy, to the good name and reputation of the United States abroad, to the American people’s faith and support of our government and its foreign policy is incalculable. This last point - the undermining of the American public’s confidence in its government is the most damaging consequence of all.”
As she finished her history lesson, Marilyn noticed that her friend had forgotten her coffee as she listened.
“Hey, Joanie, want a hot refill?” Joan glanced down, and nodded yes. She was quiet and pensive as Marilyn worked at the kitchen counter.
“Mar, I understand what you’re saying. I had forgotten about all that American mischief back in the day. And I can see why President Ford issued that order. But the CIA and American administrations have boasted, especially since 9/11, about killing foreigners.
“One of them was the leader of a sovereign country, Saddam Hussein in Iraq. What’s with that?”
Marilyn returned to the table with fresh drinks for both.
“That’s true. But the stunning events of September 11, 2001 offered a rationale for widely justifiable and acceptable targeting of bad actors overseas. Congress passed legislation greatly expanding executive branch authority to go after terrorists. The killing of Saddam Hussein was justified and rationalized under the anti-terrorist legislation.
“After 9/11, although there was no explicit reference to the assassination ban, Congressional resolutions were broad enough to authorize actions that otherwise would be prohibited under Ford’s executive order banning assassination. Few objected 11 years ago when a US Navy Seal team killed bin Laden in Pakistan.”
Joan was still puzzled. “But Putin is threatening the whole world!”
“Sure,” Marilyn replied. “He’s an evil man, behaving hatefully. But he has something the others lacked. He has nuclear weapons. What if the CIA tried to kill him and failed?”