American Assassination History for Dummies
This article first appeared at Not Safe for Work Corporation.
It’s hard to have a serious conversation about America’s drone assassination policy when no one seems to have a basic grasp of recent history. This cultural amnesia epidemic is starting to get me down— which is partly my fault for paying more than two minutes’ attention to Twitter at a single go.
The problem starts with Reagan, as problems so often do. Most people on the left take for granted that Reagan’s executive order 12333 "banned assassinations" — 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 Obama’s 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 Reagan’s 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 military’s collapse after losing Vietnam.
All sorts of dirty Cold War secrets were pouring out in that brief period — 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 Rockefeller’s report said the CIA spied on 300,000 Americans.
Remember, the American public and most of the Establishment back then were very different from today’s. There’s some truth to the "Liberal Establishment" culture that ruled until Reagan took over — those people were serious about their do-gooder intentions and their civic duties and all that, whatever the results on the ground were — nothing at all like today’s armchair Machiavellis and backseat Nietzsches who dominate our political culture, a culture where everyone's jostling to scream "You can’t handle the truth!" at imaginary liberal do-gooders...
One of Hersh’s most incredible exposés 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 — only to get off with a slap on the wrist when they finally went up for air.
Ah well, but that’s another story. What started the assassination policy trend that frames today’s politics was a slip-up by President Ford. It’s 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 ‘n’ greet" with theNew York Times’ top editors, wherein the President "slipped" and "blurted out" that he hoped they never found out about the CIA assassination program — an assassination program that none of them had ever seriously suspected until President Ford blurted it out over lunch. Whoa, Liberty! Down, boy!
Here’s how the scene is described in the book Challenging the Secret Government by UC Davis Prof. Kathryn Olmsted:
Toward the end of the luncheon, the subject of the Rockefeller Commission came up. The Times had criticized the dominance of conservatives on the commission. Ford explained that he needed men who could be trusted not to stray from their narrow mission of investigating the CIA’s domestic activities. Otherwise, he said, they might come up on matters that would "ruin the U.S. image around the world" and harm the reputation of every U.S. president since Truman.