President Reagan signed intelligence authorizations in 1984 and 1985 for aggressive covert operations against terrorists, saying that any actions taken under the orders would be “deemed” lawful if conducted in “good faith,” according to informed sources.
The language of the findings provoked disputes in the government because it was generally considered “a license to kill,” sources said. An earlier executive order that is still in effect--and that also was signed by Reagan--specifically banned any direct or indirect involvement by U.S. intelligence agents in assassinations.
But key Administration officials wanted to undertake preemptive operations that could result in killings--for example, blowing up a known terrorist hide-out in Beirut--to combat increasing terrorist activity, the sources said. These officials also wanted legal protection from the existing executive order that prohibited any U.S. government participation in assassination, the sources said.
Designed to ‘Circumvent’
One source familiar with the details of the findings said the language was specifically designed to “circumvent the assassination ban,” the latest version of which was signed Dec. 4, 1981, by Reagan.
Officials at the CIA, including the late Director William J. Casey, wanted such language to protect U.S. field officers and foreign strike operations contemplated by the intelligence findings, sources said.
A key source involved with the counterterrorist findings said they were an “astounding blank check and truly a ‘license to kill’ provision.” A former White House official called the orders the “go anywhere, do anything” authority.
As far as could be determined, no one was killed as a result of the intelligence findings that Reagan signed.
Knowledge of the findings was tightly held, but it was known to key officials. White House officials have said that Vice President George Bush would have been given a copy of, or access to, the findings.
A spokesman for Bush had no immediate comment Tuesday night. James A. Baker III, Bush’s presidential campaign chairman who was White House chief of staff when Reagan signed the 1984 finding, declined to comment.
Yet another intelligence finding on anti-terrorist activity was signed on May 12, 1986, without the controversial language. It remains in force.
The ambiguous language in the 1984 and 1985 findings states that actions undertaken in good faith and as part of an approved operation “must be and are deemed” to be lawful. As one source said, the language was “inconsistent"--the drafters seemed to want to have it both ways, insisting that all actions “must be” lawful but also stating that they “are deemed” lawful in advance.
“It’s enough for any lawyer to drive a truck through,” the source said, “but it makes it clear that (the Administration) foresaw few limits” on the counterterrorist operations.
Officials involved at the time said there was an intense debate in the Administration about the language in the findings. Participants in the debate knew that the language could be taken as a means of circumventing the ban on assassination, informed sources said.
But others said that the “must be” formulation was a deliberate effort to introduce ambiguity. Inclusion of those words satisfied lawyers and officials who feared that the findings conflicted with the presidential ban on any involvement in assassination, according to several sources.
The Reagan Administration’s decision to undertake potentially violent actions to counter terrorism grew out of intense frustration with continued car bombings of U.S. facilities and the taking of hostages in Lebanon, sources said. Reagan signed the first finding with the so-called license to kill language on Nov. 13, 1984, just days after his landslide reelection victory. The House and Senate intelligence committees were not told of the critical language of the finding, the sources said.
Rescinded After ’85 Bombing
That finding was rescinded on April 10, 1985, a month after a car bomb exploded in Beirut near the residence of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, leader of the Hezbollah faction of Iranian fundamentalists the United States has tied to terrorist actions, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps compound in Lebanon.
The 1985 explosion killed more than 80 people, but not Fadlallah. It was carried out by a group of Lebanese intelligence officers whom U.S. officials originally considered potential assets for anti-terrorist operations envisioned in the Nov. 13, 1984, intelligence finding.
However, sources have said that Casey--frustrated by his agency’s failure to act rapidly--asked Saudi Arabia to fund and organize the Fadlallah bombing as an “off the books” operation outside official U.S. channels.
But a month later, when the Washington Post reported that Lebanese intelligence agents were believed to have been responsible for the Fadlallah bombing and that Reagan’s order authorizing preemptive anti-terrorist activity had been rescinded, congressional committees charged with overseeing covert activities demanded an explanation.
The Administration gave them the language of the Nov. 13, 1984, finding. Committee members raised questions about its apparently broad authorization of actions that could evade the prohibition on any involvement in assassinations. The CIA assured the committees that the finding had been rescinded and no longer applied, sources said.
However, after the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in June, 1985, Reagan signed a second finding on Aug. 11, 1985, with similar “good faith” language.
This time the committees were briefed soon after the finding was signed, and they continued to raise questions about this provision of the order. This finding was superseded by the one signed in May, 1986.