America's History of Assassinations
The problem starts with Reagan, as problems so often do. Most people on the left take for granted that Reaganís executive order 12333 "banned assassinations" ó which is not just a false interpretation, but really awful mangling of one of the dark turning points in modern American history.
That same ignorance of the history of assassination policy runs right through today, with the repetition of another myth: That President Obamaís extrajudicial drone-assassinations of American citizens is "unprecedented" and "radical" and that "not even George Bush targeted American citizens."
The truth is a lot worse and a lot more depressing.
To understand the backstory to Reaganís deceptive "assassination ban" in 1981, you have to know a bit about what was going on in the 70s, that brief period of American Glasnost, in the aftermath of Watergate and the militaryís collapse after losing Vietnam.
All sorts of dirty Cold War secrets were pouring out in that brief period ó in late 1974, Seymour Hersh broke the story that the CIA had been illegally spying on thousands of American antiwar dissidents inside of our borders, in violation of the law and the charter that brought the CIA into existence . Later, Vice President Rockefellerís report said the CIA spied on 300,000 Americans.
Remember, the American public and most of the Establishment back then were very different from todayís. Thereís some truth to the "Liberal Establishment" culture that ruled until Reagan took over ó those people were serious about their do-gooder intentions and their civic duties and all that, whatever the results on the ground were ó nothing at all like todayís armchair Machiavellis and backseat Nietzsches who dominate our political culture, a culture where everyone's jostling to scream "You canít handle the truth!" at imaginary liberal do-gooders...
One of Hershís most incredible exposťs focused on an undercover CIA spook who told of how they penetrated the Weather Underground from very early in the Columbia U protest days, right up through their nationwide bombing campaign. Which may finally answer how it was that a handful of upper class Ivy Leaguers managed to expertly set off bombs all across the country, spring Timothy Leary from Vacaville Prison, and "evade" law enforcement officials for so many years ó only to get off with a slap on the wrist when they finally went up for air.
Ah well, but thatís another story. What started the assassination policy trend that frames todayís politics was a slip-up by President Ford. Itís a real-life Chevy Chase moment, only instead of stumbling over his podium and crashing to the floor for laughs, the real President Ford called a "meet Ďní greet" with theNew York Timesí top editors, wherein the President "slipped" and "blurted out" that he hoped they never found out about the CIA assassination program ó an assassination program that none of them had ever seriously suspected until President Ford blurted it out over lunch. Whoa, Liberty! Down, boy!
Hereís how the scene is described in the book Challenging the Secret Government by UC Davis Prof. Kathryn Olmsted:
By standard mainstream journalism rules, Fordís "blurt" wasnít off the record. But more importantly: fuck the rules, this was bombshell news, from the highest (and bumblingest) source in the land! Tom Wicker and Rosenthal both insisted on publishing the scoop ó Wicker was convinced that Ford meant to blurt it out for reasons unknown, it was hard to imagine someone who spent decades close to J Edgar Hoover and other intelligence officials could be that unbelievably stupid.
But cowardice won the day ó Wicker and Rosenthal were overruled by the rest of the Times execs and editors who were there, and they had to sit on their scoop and watch while a grandstanding jackass (in the good sense) named Daniel Schorr stole it from under their noses.
Yep, that crusty old voice on NPR was once one of the pushiest assholes in journalism. Schorr, who worked for CBS News during the post-Watergate era, had heard the rumors about Fordís "assassination gaffe" at the New York Times. Schorr had assumed that Ford was talking about domestic assassinations of Americans, but he needed confirmation from someone high up. So he arranged an off-the-record interview with CIA chief William Colby, and got another "gaffe" scoop:
Two gaffes, two Chevy Chase fall-on-their-faces screw-ups buy two of the highest and most experienced lawyer-intelligence officials in the land. Whatíre the odds!
Then again, there really was something of a whiff of failure in the air those years ó Hell, even our assassins couldnít hit the side of a barn if they stood right in front shooting, as Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme proved that year, the Lucille Balls of would-be presidential assassins...
This is where the slapstick ends, and things get deadly serious and depressing. Over the next several months, the Church Commission and Pike Commission exposed a number of CIA assassination plots ó in the Congo, Haiti, Chile, Cuba, Indonesia, Dominican Republic, who knew where else ó and the public reacted with genuine shock and horror. Not just the public, but most of the Liberal Establishment was shocked and horrified also ó Democrats and Republicans, back when they had "moderate" and "liberal" Republicans in Congress. Hypocrites, sure, but after a couple of decades with the Col. Jessups who dominate our political discourse today, Iíd take those old pre-Carter Cold War liberal hypocrites any day.
The CIA assassination program shocked the public more than any other revelation from that period. JFK and MLK conspiracy theories went mainstream. Robert Redford wouldnít take a script if he wasnít being chased by CIA villains. Everyone hated the CIA in America, and the fastest way to becoming a hero was being hated right back ó like Daniel Schorr was.
In mid-1975, Schorr was anointed "CIA Enemy No 1" by none other than ex-CIA director and silver-spoon fascist Richard Helms himself ó which Schorr proudly recounted in his memoir Clearing The Air:
In that atmosphere, in early 1976, President Ford issued executive order 11905 ó which has been wrongly described over the years as "banning assassinations," but at the time Ford signed it, 11905 was more properly understood as a window dressing largely designed to keep the liberal activist Democratic Party Congress from legislating changes to the CIA themselves. (Keep in mind, the Democratic Congress that swept into power after Watergate was, for a brief time, aggressively reformist and nothing like the Democratic Party of today.) Even Fordís language banning assassinations or CIA domestic spying left a lot to be interpreted ó a recurruing problem later on, with the exception of Carter.
Sen. Frank Church, who headed the Church Committee (sort of a "Truth Commission), dismissed Fordís "reforms" when they were first announced in early March 1976, as Newsweek reported at the time:
Rather than creating conditions for greater accountability, Ford centralized power in the White House ó and as Newsweek reported, the biggest beneficiary of Fordís reforms (and likely its author) was none other than new CIA chief George H. W. Bush:
Finally, although Ford technically banned assassinations, his order left a giant loophole that could allow the CIA to spy on American dissidents all over again, as Newsweek reported:
But then something went wrong in Bush-Fordís plans ó the curse of the bumbling American fascist returned, in the form of Gerald Fordís 1976 campaign chief, Dick Cheney, who flubbed Fordís odds-on election victory simply by being there and putting in his two cents. That meant a do-gooder peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter was in control at the peak of the last gasp of Democratic Party liberal activism.
As everyone knows, Carterís presidency was one long bummer. But what most people donít know ó or have forgotten ó is that Carter did more than any president to bring the national security state under control. Especially the CIA, which Carter gutted, purged, and chained down with a whole set of policies and guidelines meant to protect American citizensí civil liberties.
In his first year in office, Carter purged nearly 20% of the Agencyís 4500 employees, gutting the ranks of clandestine operatives, sending hundreds of dirty trickster vets into the private sector to seethe for the next few years. Carter signed an executive order worked out with Frank Church and the Senate committee on intelligence putting more serious limits on the CIAís powers ó unequivocally banning assassinations, restricting the CIAís ability to spy domestically, and putting their covert operations under strict oversight under the president, Congressional committees and the attorney general. The CIAís paramilitary was even disbanded, though not banned.
Carterís people understood that real fundamental change in the CIA and national security state would only come through democratic politics ó through passing laws. He and Sen. Church tried, but they were outmaneuvered and ground into mulch.
A Washington Post article from the summer of 1978 captured the changing mood, and the first early wave of gloom setting in with Democrat reformers that their days were over and their chance was missed:
And yet even as comparatively progressive as Carterís and Churchís proposed reforms were ó this was the brief high point for civil liberties, itís all downhill from here ó nevertheless, pretty much everyone across the spectrum hated Carterís and Churchís reforms for their own reasons, and Carter did little to inspire.
Carterís gutting of the CIA and his new guidelines restricting domestic surveillance by the FBI and other agencies won him few friends among grandstanding professional liberals. If anything the country turned against Carter as the world went to shit around him ó Iran, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Jonestown ó paving the way for Reagan to "restore" American power.
brings us to early 1981, and Reaganís executive order 12333
which has been falsely described as "banning assassinations"
by critics of Bush and now Obama.
But itís much worse than that.
From the minute Reaganís team took power, they went to work rewriting the rules to give themselves enormous unlimited power to re-animate the empire and the national-security state. In early 1981, it didnít seem possible that the political culture could slide back so far after all those hard-won battles; by the end of the year, it was as if thereíd never been a Church Committee or reforms of any kind.
To get a sense of how this developed, hereís a kind of timeline I put together:
10, 1981: "Reagan Administration Weighs Broader CIA Role in
15, 1981: "Recouping Under Reagan; CIA Is on the Rebound"
October 13, 1981: "Draft Order May Let CIA Resume Its Police
October 22, 1981: "Reagan Official Says Carter Overprotected Civil Liberties"
In December 1981, Reagan signed the executive order 12333 undoing the previous decadesí reforms with the stroke of a pen. For cover, Reaganís people planted fake scare stories through Jack Anderson about non-existent Libyan assassination squads  infiltrating U.S. borders, waterskiing their way across the Great Plains to spring John Hinckley and wreak havoc on the American Way of Life.
And that is the back story to Reaganís executive order 12333, the one that allegedly banned assassinations and allegedly made him so much more progressive than Bush or Obama.
Reagan not only gave the CIA carte blanche in the US to spy, but he also massively expanded the powers of the FBI and law enforcement to spy on Americans domestically with another executive order in 1983, paving the way for a repeat of all the awful abuses uncovered by Sen. Church, which only started coming to light at the end of Reaganís presidency.
As reported in the AP on March 7, 1983:
Cut to: 1988, and weíre on repeat from the 70s, like a bad sitcom, with scandals and exposes of police state overreach.
Hereís one example from the Chicago Tribune dated January 31, 1988:
As you can probably guess, the Democrats made some noise, complained, opened hearings ó but no one had the courage or stamina to go through all that again.
Meanwhile, on the assassination front, hereís a snapshot of what Reaganís EO 12333 led to. This WaPo article, "Covert Hit Teams Might Evade Presidential Ban" dated February 12, 1984, needs to be unpacked to understand how little things have changed in the past three decades:
This amazing passage gets right to one of the dark absurdities that informs our own debate today about how to fight terrorism ó that itís "legal" and considered essentially "normal" to shell with destroyers or bomb villages from the air if terrorists are suspected of being in those villages ó but considered completely beyond the pale of civilized behavior to actually aim and target suspected terrorists.
It was a similar debate as this in the Bush years that led to increased use of drones and targeted assassinations ó and now that weíre using drones, the sense is that the American imperial machine has crossed a Rubicon of death and evil unheard of. What Reaganís war on terror reveals to our post-Reagan eyes is the absurdity of conducting imperial wars, period ó whatever the choice of weapon is.
And then thereís this black comedy part of the story ó putting the fate of the American imperial machine and justice in the hands of lawyers and "rule of law"-tards rather than in the public forum where it belongs:
See what happens when you put assassination policy in the hands of lawyers? Itís not even assassination anymore ó itís "military activity"! And terrorists arenít political targets! And you didnít support Bushís invasion of Iraq, you supported the institutions that supported the institution of the presidency which decided independently of the institutions you supported to invade Iraq. Duh!
Around this time, another revelation about Reagan and assassinations was discovered by the great investigative reporter Robert Parry working at the AP: A new CIA training manual for Latin American death squads, published in 1983, included instructions on various methods of murdering and torturing. Hundreds of thousands in Central America were butchered, disappeared, raped and tortured during Reaganís tenure, by death squads trained up by our forces. All carried out under Reaganís alleged "ban" on assassinations:
Reaganís people claimed that the AP got ahold of one of a handful of defective copies of the CIA manual, swearing on their grandmothersí graves that the real CIA manuals distributed around Latin America made no mention of assassination.
But as soon as George Bush Sr became president in 1989, he dispensed with whatever remained of the charade with an "aw, fuck it" attitude ó and that was that:
Did you catch that? Does it even matter anymore? You can already see where the real problem lies here ó the complete absence of any politics, leaving American democracy at the mercy of lawyers and their various interpretations of "rule of law."
The Clinton years donít bring any improvements ó the best you can say about Clinton is that he didnít escalate the Reagan-Bush national security state evils to new insane levels. Instead, he played the liberal by squirting a few for the hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans massacred under US supervision ó then got his little wars on in Kosovo and cruise-missile attacked Saddam Hussein.
Ironically, during one of Clintonís Baghdad-bombings in 1998, Republicans backed by all the armchair Machiavelli pundit class started making a bunch of noise demanding Clinton stop pretending once and for all that we donít assassinate foreigners, on the theory that being "hypocritical" about assassinating foreigners is somehow a lot worse than tearing off our shirts outside the proverbial bar, screaming, "Yeah, we assassinate! Whatcha gonna do about it, huh? Weíre here, brah! Not fuckiní afraid to admit it, we assassinate, cuz thatís how we roll, brah!"
Clinton, however, chose to stick with his liberal hypocrite strategy. Ultimately, it made no goddamn difference to his successor, George W. Bush, but in hindsight you really do have to wonder why our culture got so laughably sanctimonious about a "hypocritical" assassination policy versus what the other side demanded, "at least being open about it." No one ever explained how being "open" about assassinations made us more just.
* * * *
Which brings us to our time. May 4, 2001. George W. Bush just seated himself in the White House. That same month, who should be lobbying for a bill granting Dubya unfettered power to assassinate whomever he wants butlibertarian hero  Bob Barr, as reported in the Tulsa World:
A few months later, Bob Barrís services were no longer needed by the Bush Administration.
Which brings me to the last part of this attempt at jolting your short-term memory. One of the other myths informing our feckless and half-baked debates is the meme going round claiming that President Obama, by approving extrajudicial assassinations of Americans suspected of being terrorists, crossed a line that supposedly "even Bush" never dared to cross.
For example, Wired  recently declared:
And Salonís Joan Walsh expressed outrage  over the lack of liberal outrage at Obamaís "policies that Bush stopped short of, like targeted assassination of U.S. citizens loyal to al-Qaida."
There are more examples of this, but you get the point.
For better or for worse ó I say for worse ó this story doesnít have a neat made-for-TV narrative arc of evil. Itís pretty goddamn flat throughout, excepting the Carter years. And that non-dramatic flat evil holds true with Obama as well.
First, itís not true that Americans were not assassinated by extrajudicial drone or missile attacks during the Bush years. There are two for sure that we know of: The first American-born citizen assassinated by a targeted drone attack was Kemal Derwish, blown up by a Predator in Yemen in 2002.
As Dana Priest wrote in the Washington Post :
That piece was written in 2010, but early in Bushís term, articles like this one from the New York Times  in 2003 made it clear that Bush approved of extrajudicial targeted assassinations of American suspected terrorists:
Ridgeís interview confession to Lowell Bergman can be found at the PBS site .
The second American targeted for assassination that we know of was Ruben Shumpert  of Seattle, killed by a US missile strike in Somalia in 2008.
And now here we are today, with a "progressive" president who absorbed all the rancid policies of Ronald Reagan and George W Bush and adopted them as his own as titular head of the American Empire.
Now, if someone could just distill that down to 140 characters.
Read more of Mark Ames at eXiledonline.com and Not Safe for Work Corporation. He is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond.
This article first appeared at Not Safe for Work Corporation.
Scroll down to add / read comments
|In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Information Clearing House has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Information ClearingHouse endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)|