Let's make one thing clear at the outset: My idea of justice and, yes – retribution -- does not revolve around seeing Osama bin Laden on trial before the International Criminal Court in the Hague as the prosecutor politely asks, "Mr. bin Laden, do you recall the morning of September 11, 2001?"
My problem with George W. Bush's promise to get Osama "dead or alive" was not the Wild West hang-'im-high bravado of the 2001 presidential crack but the Pentagon's failure
to commit enough troops to redeem the pledge at Tora Bora. When it comes to Adolf Hitler in his bunker in 1945, Pol Pot after the killing fields in Cambodia or bin Laden today, I am more than willing to temporarily suspend my otherwise unswerving belief in the rule of law.
Then why do I find myself queasy over Monday's news
of a now-canceled post-9/11 CIA effort to go after al Qaeda leaders with trained teams of assassins? Why do I distinguish between bin Laden and less famous but presumably equally lethal al Qaeda leaders? What is the morality of government-sanctioned assassination when the target is a terrorist?
Put aside fascinating but distracting peripheral issues such as the CIA's failure to inform Congress of the kill-on-sight program, and Dick Cheney's role in the cover-up. Let's also avoid legalistic wrangling about whether al Qaeda fits under the wartime exception to Jerry Ford's 1976 executive order banning assassination.
Here is a hypothetical situation: Should I cheer if a CIA agent shot a bin Laden henchman in the back on a back street of Peshawar, Pakistan, far from any Afghan battlefield? Would the same principle apply if the target were a 19-year-old madrassa student in Peshawar who was planning to leave the next day for an al Qaeda training camp? In short, how senior does the al Qaeda official have to be to justify no-questions-asked assassination?
The assassination project was canceled last month by Leon Panetta, although it remains murky whether the CIA director objected solely to the failure to consult Congress or whether he was also dissuaded by practical and legal concerns. Yet America continues to practice de facto assassination by targeting terrorist leaders with deadly accurate Predator drone missiles. The Obama administration reviewed this policy on taking office, but the major White House concerns were the civilian casualties from the Predator attacks and objections from our erstwhile ally Pakistan over the continuing violations of its national sovereignty.
Any talk of assassination plots brings back memories of the definitive 1975 Senate hearings led by Idaho Democrat Frank Church into CIA misdeeds. The Church Committee highlighted the CIA's obsessive efforts in the early 1960s to kill Fidel Castro, often using cartoonish props like the poisoned cigars
delivered to a Cuban agent in February 1961. (The ultimate fate of the cigars, which were treated with a lethal toxin, remains unknown).
But the CIA's targets extended far beyond Cold War menaces like Castro. In 1970 the CIA decided that it would be impossible to oust leftist President Salvador Allende in Chile as long as Gen. René Schneider, the Chilean Army's commander in chief, remained militantly opposed to a coup. So the decision was made in Washington to remove Schneider. According to the Church Committee report
, the CIA passed along three submachine guns to Chilean plotters, who attempted to kidnap Schneider. After two botched abductions, Schneider was killed by a handgun (apparently not supplied by the CIA) during a third kidnapping.
The CIA initiative that offers the closest analogy to current efforts to exterminate al Qaeda's leaders was the Phoenix program during the Vietnam War. Begun in 1968 as an effort to dislodge the Viet Cong's unofficial leadership structure in South Vietnamese villages, it evolved into something brutal even by the standards of an ongoing war. As historian John Prados writes in the recently published "Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-75," "Accusations of arbitrary detention and assassination were so controversial in the United States that Phoenix stimulated the antiwar movement, damaging public support for the war to an incalculable degree."
What conclusions can we draw from this tangled history of the CIA's dark side?
It seems apparent in hindsight that the CIA's targets (Castro, Schneider, Dominican Republic strongman Rafael Trujillo, recalcitrant South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and anti-colonial leader Patrice Lumumba in the Congo) were strategic inconveniences for the United States rather than major-league war criminals. Fidel Castro has stifled dissent and democracy for a half century, but the CIA assassination plots against him were morally reprehensible. It is light years from the hypothetical "Would you have shot Hitler in 1933?" to the more realistic "Would you have offered poisoned cigars to Castro?"
The Phoenix program offers another cautionary lesson about the limitations of wartime intelligence. As veteran journalist Stanley Karnow recounts in his definitive "Vietnam: A History," under the Phoenix program, South Vietnamese officials "frequently tortured villagers on no more evidence than the accusation of jealous neighbors." Karnow blames the CIA for its folly in trying to work through inept and corrupt South Vietnamese local leaders rather than for actively encouraging torture and assassination.
All this suggests to me that America should almost never sanction assassination (even by Predator missiles) away from the battlefield. It is not enough for the CIA to triple check that its target is really the man with the blue turban, the pockmarked face and the limp. It is not enough that the intelligence comes from a proven informant or that the most recent satellite photographs show only a few civilians in the area.
The real question should be: How will this killing look in 20 or 30 years to a younger generation of Americans who view the horrors of September 11 as a far-off historical event? Even in 2039, I suspect that there will be few Americans who feel morally uncomfortable about every single effort to murder Osama bin Laden. But it may be far more difficult to justify having killed 14 Pakistani civilians in a Predator attack on a man who may be (according to two informants) an assistant deputy regional al Qaeda commander.
Yes, this is a subjective standard – and I recognize that readers may disagree. But it has been nearly eight years since the 9/11 attacks and it seems time for America to return to traditional moral values as it continues to battle terrorism.