Assassination Redux

Author: Gary Hart

In 1975, the Director of the CIA testified before a secret hearing of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate the U.S. Intelligence Community that there had been assassination plots against as many as six foreign leaders in recent years, several against the Cuban leader Fidel Castro.  I am now one of only a few surviving members of that Committee.

This became something of a turning point in U.S. foreign, military, and security policies at the height of the Cold War.  To say this revelation “shocked the conscience of the nation” is probably an overstatement.  But it did bring even the most hawkish Cold Warriors up short, and after discussion and deliberation, a popular consensus formed, reflected in the Congress itself, that assassinations aimed at foreign leaders violated unwritten moral codes defining American itself and serve no useful purpose in disabling communism or any other undemocratic ideology.

Legislation outlawing government sponsored assassinations, though introduced, never achieved passage into law.  But President Gerald Ford issued an executive decree forbidding our Government from resorting to its use.

Years passed, then came 9/11 and shortly thereafter a “war on terrorism”.  New language is normally used to circumvent established policy.  So, assassination became “targeted killings” under both Presidents W. Bush and Barack Obama.  They became ubiquitous and were often justified as saving lives.  By targeting leading terrorists with 50 caliber long-range rifles and, more recently, sophisticated drones with air to ground missiles, collateral damage to innocent civilians in the area was limited in ways conventional bombs would not.

On complex issues of this sort, there is a scale of extreme pragmatism on one end and extreme moralism on the other.  Knock out bad guys every chance you get versus assassination by any other name is still contrary to American values.

Now, let’s complicate things even further by layering on a heavy coat of politics.  It requires no genius to understand a president under impeachment might be tempted to look for dramatic ways to change the channel or at least move the impeachment debate off the front page.

We will never know the answer to what evil lurks in the hearts of men, particularly when the drone strike kills a leading military figure proclaimed to be planning near term strikes against American targets.  What intelligence resources might be compromised by providing evidence of this?, reasonable people might ask.

There is abundant evidence that a practice used once soon becomes standard.  We did it once, why can’t we do it again…and again?  Or, President T did it; why can’t President B?  The extraordinary thus becomes ordinary.

Is there something deep in the American character that calls us to higher behavior?  That is worth discussing…at length.  But alongside that discussion is the practical one.  Was this Iranian general unique in the sense he cannot be replaced?  Highly unlikely.  Then, except for some Fox News chest-pounding, what has been achieved?  A demonstration that this president is tough.  So what?  George W. Bush was tough, and we lost 3000 Americans on his watch.

In so doing, traditional military thinking, founded on the human instinct for survival, went out the window.  Take away the survival instinct, and a person is capable of almost any act of destruction.

As cited before, the ancient Native American challenge: Accept your death, and become dangerous.

If the incumbent president has thrown the Ford doctrine out the window, we are back in the assassination business, even if we clean it up a bit by “targeted killing” window dressing.

It is thus for the few remaining statesmen and women to convene serious discussions about its effectiveness, its political, as well as military, implications, its poisoning of traditional diplomacy (though those in leadership disdain it), its achievement of any meaningful objective.

If American is back in the assassination business, someone needs to be honest about it.  In the case of an aging veteran of the previous assassination era, I am ready to testify it isn’t worth it.


9 Responses to “Assassination Redux”

  1. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    President B? My, that has a lovely ring to it. 🙂

    I, for one, would trust President B with my life. The intel community? Only extremely cautiously – with regard to assassinations, anyway. The Kennedy assassination(s) isn’t quite out of my system yet, after all.

    Speaking of which, a standard policy of assassination can come back to bite you (generic you, of course) in the ass.

  2. Michael Says:

    Sure, it would have been great if we had assassinated Hitler when he remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, or bin Laden in 1996. But if an exploding cigar had killed Fidel Castro would it have changed anything in a meaningful way for the better? Did killing Soleimani result in anything but increased tensions in an already volatile region? We’ve ‘targeted’ plenty of terrorists and, in the process, created even more with the collateral damage that usually accompanies those actions. Murder is always a messy business, and the mental exercises that imagines the good in it are only possible with the benefit of hindsight. I suppose there are incidents where the evidence is overwhelming that someone is about to do something very bad very soon if they aren’t stopped. But I have the feeling that outside of Hollywood and novels, those cases are exceedingly rare. I agree with Senator Hart that it is time for a serious discussion about all this. We should not present ourselves abroad as a society that is as lawless as the bad actors we are killing, but as grounded in the rule of law. And just maybe it is time to start looking beyond military solutions and to begin thinking again about how to win hearts and minds.

  3. Edward Goldstick Says:

    Three matters come to mind:

    1) This from David Frum summarizes the obvious reality of this particular case:

    If a threat is imminent, killing the guy at the very top of the chain of command won’t stop it.

    If killing the guy at the top of the chain of command will stop it, the threat is not imminent.

    Killing bin Laden on 9/10 would not have prevented 9/11.

    2) The more general case – is political* assassination ever justified – is more difficult, but I agree with our host that the potential benefits of a specific circumstance do not outweigh the cost of normalizing the general practice.

    * versus the targeting of “leaders” on the battlefield at long-range to disrupt the the chain of command for tactical purposes.

    3) The problem of preemptive political assassination, moral considerations aside and just like proactive regime change, is made clear by the dictum that one is more likely better off with the enemy one knows…

    One thing is clear: Iran actually benefits from this turn of events now that Trump has backed off (I won’t say “backed down” because he might see it and feel affronted. Iran will probably get a three-fer for this: a martyr, the weakening and potential termination of the US presence in Iraq, and a buffer of time and credibility behind which they can try to perfect the beginnings of a nuclear deterrent.

    That’s just what we all need (and that goes for everyone concerned…)

  4. Michael Says:

    Edward Goldstick presents an interesting point about Trump backing off (or down). Of course it is good that he didn’t respond. But I wonder what Kim Jong-un was thinking when he saw Iran sending ballistic missiles into American military bases with no retaliatory response.

  5. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Whatever happened to Executive Order 11905, anyway … collecting too much dust, I guess.

  6. Gary Hart Says:

    In response to Elizabeth’s cogent question: Our current president acknowledges only those executive orders he issues. GH

  7. Elizabeth Miller Says:


    Well, I haven’t heard any media outlet mention it lately, either. I was reminded by another of my favourite political analysts.

    Maybe it will come up at the next Democratic debate! 🙂 Not too likely – I’ll bet foreign policy gets the attention it usually does and nothing more.

    Do you think, Senator Hart, that president Ford was at all motivated by the assassinations that took place during the sixties or was he dealing only with that kind of covert operation abroa

  8. Gary Hart Says:

    Response to Elizabeth: I’ve always refused to mind-read or speculate on the motives of leaders, political or otherwise. If I understand the question (assassinations that took place in the 60s), I believe Pres. Ford was shutting down assassinations as an instrument of foreign policy, as revealed by the Church Committee. On the other hand, he was a member of the Warren Commission. Make of that what you will. GH

  9. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    I’m officially done speculating myself. And, I learned well from Senator Biden that it is never a good idea to question peoples’ motivations.

    But, I still, and I guess always will, cringe with severity whenever I hear talk of lone gunmen.

    I see there is a new piece up! 🙂

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