Some pushing to lift U.S. ban on assassination

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — For the past 25 years, the United States has officially forbidden the carrying out of assassinations abroad, a policy that may not survive this week’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

The policy, first adopted by President Ford in 1976, followed revelations that the CIA had tried and failed to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro. There were also fears the botched assassination attempts might have led to the slaying of President Kennedy.

Though controversial, the assassination ban has lasted through five administrations and a succession of military operations. The United States has dropped bombs on Libya and Iraq and fired cruise missiles at Afghanistan and Sudan, all with the hope that certain tyrants or terrorists would perish in the destruction.

But officials have stopped short of using killing squads, or hiring them, to assassinate those who are behind terrorist plots.

This week, some lawmakers have been calling for the repeal of the assassination ban as outdated in a world of international terrorism.

"It’s not what we need in today’s environment, dealing with these terrorist groups," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "This is a different type of war. They are going to assassinate our people and blow up our buildings unless we eradicate them first."

Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., had urged President Clinton to repeal the ban after the 1998 attacks on the two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Saudi exile Osama bin Laden was believed to be behind those attacks, and he survived the retaliatory cruise missile strikes ordered by Clinton.

Barr said U.S. policy should not "tie the hands" of the CIA by forbidding targeted assassinations. Rather, the authority to carry out such killings means the masterminds "can be eliminated in cases where it is simply impossible to capture them by ordinary means," Barr said.

Because the assassination ban is an executive order, not a law, it can be repealed by the president. Clinton refused, however, choosing to maintain the more nuanced U.S. policy on terrorism. It allows the use of military force against recognized threats, including terrorists. And whenever possible, the U.S. policy seeks to "bring terrorists to justice for their crimes," rather than kill them on the spot.

"It’s a different ballgame now," deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Thursday. From the start, President Bush also spoke of "hunting down" those who are behind the terror campaign.

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