Is It Time To Kill Saddam Hussein

When former national security advisor Gen. Brent Scowcroft told Fox TV last Sunday that it was time to "get rid of Saddam Hussein," he was only echoing a swelling American chorus demanding the Iraqi president's head.But even as Saddam Hussein routs a CIA-backed Kurdish army, taunts the White House and calls for a "holy war" of terrorism against the United States, some policy makers warn against assassinating him. Not only would it violate a 20-year ban; it would invite retaliation against American leaders.Political assassinations were banned by President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 after the U.S. Senate heard testimony on CIA murder plots against Cuba's Fidel Castro, the Congo's Patrice Lumumba, and Dominican president Rafael Trujillo, among others.Now pressure is mounting to roll back the ban. Louis Rene Beres, professor of international law at Purdue University, argues that assassinating terrorists is morally defensible. "Punishment of violent crime is always at the very heart of justice, and in our decentralized system of world law, self-help by individual nations is often the only available path."The CIA never gave up its capability to shoot, poison, booby trap, strangle, or garrote human targets, intelligence sources say, although hundreds of CIA covert action specialists were put on the shelf in the Ford and Carter administrations.In 1991, says a former CIA officer, "I saw a videotape presentation that outlines U.S. capabilities -- by deep, deep-level Green Beret units -- to carry out assassination." But, he argued, the term "assassination" today doesn't carry the same weight as it did 35 years ago, when the CIA was trying to tempt a snorkeling Fidel Castro into picking up a booby-trapped seashell.In 1991, the Bush administration considered a plan to infiltrate Libya and assassinate terrorists thought to be responsible for blowing up Pan Am 103 over Scotland, according to three ex-intelligence operatives from the FBI and CIA. Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh rejected it, one said. "I don't know if it included Khadafi," the CIA officer said.And during Desert Storm, "we actively sought Saddam" Hussein, said another former CIA officer. Responsibility for the mission, which apparently failed to get close enough to the Iraqi president to kill him, was in the hands of a paramilitary unit in the CIA's Directorate of Operations, he says.U.S. assassins were deployed in Somalia and Panama, too, two former CIA officers said, underscoring that they were part of a military operation."Let's put it this way," said the ex-CIA officer. "If we've got an accessible target and we can get to him, we'll go get him."A retired FBI official, who worked closely with the CIA in establishing the government's Joint Terrorism Task Force in the 1980s, says no political hits were carried out on his watch. Instead, the United States has favored a "law enforcement approach" -- arresting and trying perpetrators of the World Trade Center bombing, for example.Some experts argue that's not enough."I'm saying we should use law enforcement, but not exclusively," says Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer, who recommends missile attacks on foreign terrorist bases. "We don't need to go out with assassination teams," Johnson said, which are "often counterproductive" and can provoke yet another cycle of terrorism.Brent Scowcroft rejects tit-for-tat spasms in response to terrorist attacks, in favor of long-range intelligence-gathering on terrorist groups."What we need is to get inside them and break them up before they do something," the former Bush administration official said in a TV interview.The problem with that, counters Larry Johnson, is that it would require the CIA to put thugs and murderers on its payroll, a tactic that backfired when CIA connections to Guatemalan torturers was revealed this year.The public and the politicians, he says, "want it both ways: Get the information on scumbags but don't deal with scumbags. Which way is it going to be? To infiltrate terrorist groups," he warns, "you're to have to deal with a lot of unsavory characters."Nor are there many CIA officials today who will put their names on an order to assassinate a foreign leader, all the experts say. "They'd be crazy if they did," says one. "Nobody's going to make a move without getting Bill Clinton's signature on the dotted line."In the end, air strikes may not be as sexy as back-alley assassinations, but they are probably the best response among unattractive options."We've got to be careful not to overreact," says Clint Van Zandt, who created personality profiles of serial killers and terrorists for the FBI. "We've got to be careful not to be an industrial giant flailing at gnats buzzing at our heads."Nor should Washington make up methods that make America no better than the terrorists themselves, says former FBI special agent Carter Cornick, a terrorism expert."We've got to enforce the law, not make our own," Cornick says. "Bring them to the bar of justice, and lock them up."

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