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Assassination–As American as Apple Pie?

January 8, 2020
Soleimani funeral

Mourners at funeral for Qasem Soleimani

Have we crossed a critical line with Trump’s implicit assertion that the US has the right to assassinate government officials of countries with which we are not at war?

Assassination of government officials has historically been used mostly by the weak against the strong–by individuals or groups struggling against governments perceived as possessing overwhelming repressive powers. In modern times, nation-states have rarely, if ever, claimed a right to kill leaders of adversary countries as a tool of statecraft. If they wanted to do that, they used proxies or clandestine operations that provided at least a fig leaf of deniability. Trump has now brazenly tossed the fig leaf aside.

While there is some international law dealing with assassination, the prohibition against one state using assassination against another state in a non-war situation is more customary than legal. The reason for that is quite simple:  If you have the right to kill an official of an adversary country, then they have a right to assassinate you. It then all comes down to power, motive, and opportunity–basically gang wars on a national scale. And assassination becomes a casus belli–a justification for war.

In the US, in 1975 the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations–generally known as the Church Committee after Senator Frank Church–recommended that a law be enacted “which would make it a criminal offense for persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States (1) to conspire, within or outside the United States, to assassinate a foreign official; (2) to attempt to assassinate a foreign official; or (3) to assassinate a foreign official.”

Two CIA directors in the 70s–Helms and Colby–issued internal agency directives to prohibit such assassinations, but the Committee found that legislation was needed because “administrations change, CIA directors change, and someday in the future what was tried in the past may once again be a temptation. . . . Laws express our nation’s values; they deter those who might be tempted to ignore those values and stiffen the will of those who want to resist.”

Indeed. Attempts to pass such a law failed in Congress in 1976, 1977, and 1980. In 1976, President Ford issued Executive Order 11905 which stated that “no employee of the United States shall engage in, or conspire to engage in political assassination.” In 1978, President Carter strengthened the language in E.O. 12306 to read “no employee of the United States, or those acting on behalf of the United States, shall engage in, or conspire to engage in assassination.” In 1981, President Reagan issued a new version, E.O. 12333, which added a section that prohibits indirect assassination by members of the intelligence community.

The Church Committee was convened in large part because the CIA was perceived as out of control–fomenting coups and plotting assassinations in countries around the world. The Committee focused specifically on five cases of peacetime assassination of government leaders in which the US government was allegedly involved:

  1. Patrice Lumumba, President of the Congo, killed in 1961.
  2. Fidel Castro, President of Cuba, various unsuccessful assassination plots from 1960 to 1965.
  3. Rafael Trujillo, President of the Dominican Republic, killed in 1961.
  4. Ngo Dinh Diem, President of South Vietnam and his brother Nhu, killed in 1963.
  5. General Rene Schneider of Chile, killed in 1970.

You can download the entire report here. The Committee found that:

  • In the Lumumba case, two CIA officials had been asked by their superiors to kill him and provided poisons to do so, but in the end they were not actually involved in his killing, which was carried out by Congolese rivals with help from Belgian officials.
  • With Castro, the CIA recruited mob figures and anti-Castro Cubans to carry various, often ludicrous, attempts on his life, but none were successful.
  • With Trujillo, the US government generally supported dissidents, knew of plots to kill him, and supplied them with a few guns. But US personnel were not involved in the actual killing.
  • Diem and his brother were killed during a military coup, which had US support, but their killing was not supposed to occur as part of the coup and the assassination was done without US knowledge or support.
  • Schneider, the Commander in Chief of the Chilean Army, opposed a military coup which was actively supported by the US in order to prevent Salvador Allende from taking office as president. He was shot by the golpistas while trying to escape being kidnapped and died subsequently, but US personnel were not directly involved.

In each of these cases, the official US involvement was murky enough that there was some shred of plausible deniability, and no one was ever punished for their connections to these killings.

Outside of these cases, there was the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende who died in the Presidential Palace during a CIA-fomented 1973 coup. Most accounts conclude that he committed suicide during the military attack on the palace, but clearly his death would not have occurred then and there had not the coup taken place.

Then there was the 1986 US Air Force attack on three Libyan military sites in retaliation for a Libyan-sponsored terrorist attack on a Berlin nightclub. One of the sites was believed to be a residence of Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi. As it turned out, he was not present at the time, but his adopted daughter was killed and his wife and one son were injured. The Reagan Administration argued that Qadhafi was not the intended target and therefore the attack did not violate Reagan’s own executive order, but press reports revealed that US intelligence believed that Qadhafi might be there at the time of the raid, and killing Qadhafi would be been seen as a most positive outcome. This is perhaps the closest analogue to the assassination of Soleimani this week. But even in this case, the Reagan administration was not prepared to go the full Trump and openly proclaim that killing a foreign leader was the objective.

Let’s set aside any judgment on whether the targets of these assassinations had it coming and talk about blowback. The Congo has suffered through decades of dictatorship and civil wars. Certainly, not all of that can be blamed on Lumumba’s killing and he was already probably on the way out of power, but foreign manipulation on the part of the US and others certainly contributed to the chronic instability.

In the Dominican Republic, the leftist Juan Bosch won election as President in 1963, but was regarded with hostility by the US and deposed by a military coup in 1965 at which time Lyndon Johnson sent in the US military as a de facto occupying force. In 1966, Joaquin Balaguer, Trujillo’s last puppet president, was elected and remained in office for twelve years marked by repression of human rights and political opposition.

In Chile, the US government worked to destabilize Allende’s government and to deny it foreign financing which exacerbated economic distress and fed the opposition. The 1973 military brought a brutal repression with thousands of extrajudicial killings and tens of thousands of Chileans arrested, tortured, or forced into exile. The military-led government became the poster child for  neoliberal/libertarian economists like James Buchanan, which brought in massive foreign investment that stabilized the economy–until it didn’t.

In Cuba, the attempts to kill Castro certainly solidified his belief that the US would do anything to destroy him and arguably made him more eager for Soviet protection–including accepting the missile sites that led to the October 1962 missile crisis that threatened a nuclear war.  Sixty years later, Fidel is dead, but the regime he created remains intact and under no threat of crumbling.

Then there’s Vietnam. In 1963, the US commitment to the Saigon government was still relatively modest. But US involvement in the coup in which Diem was killed served to cement ties with the military government that took over, leading to incrementally expanding military and economic support that ultimately intensified and prolonged a decade of disastrous civil war.  Vietnam is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century–for the US, certainly, but vastly more so for Vietnam itself.

Now here we are on the brink of a hot war with Iran as a result of an assassination justified on the basis of Iranian activities in the Middle East that, objectively, are not that different from those that the US has engaged in throughout the world since World War II.

Americans like to see themselves as the good guys, but increasingly that is not the way the rest of the world sees us. Trump has trampled on alliances built up over 75 years, and now we are often regarded a threat rather than a friend. The more we opt for brute power and intimidation as a means of asserting dominance in the world, the more isolated and insecure we become.

With his bellicose chest-beating over the Soleimani assassination, Trump has overturned decades of stated US policy on what is morally and pragmatically acceptable, thereby exacerbating a crisis of his own making. This is a Rubicon we should not have crossed, and I’m not hearing a lot of discussion about this fundamental issue. He is well on his way to making the US an international pariah, and karma can be a bitch.






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