President Reagan on Wednesday vigorously denied a report that in 1984 and 1985 he authorized CIA anti-terrorism tactics that could have constituted a virtual “license to kill” for the agency.
Reagan said that he is “quite upset” about the report, which appeared in Wednesday’s Washington Post and was carried by The Times. The story, quoting “informed sources,” said the President signed secret orders in 1984 and 1985 saying that any aggressive anti-terrorism action taken in “good faith” would be “deemed” lawful.
The story, quoting one source, said the orders were intended to circumvent a U.S. policy against assassinations and that, in the eyes of some officials, it was “considered a license to kill.”
But Reagan, answering questions at a White House photo session, said: “No, back in 1981, I issued a directive that the United States would not permit assassinating anyone in any of the things that we were doing, and that continues to this day.”
At his briefing earlier, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, bombarded with questions, called the story “an extraordinary cheap shot. It’s not true.”
Fitzwater confirmed that Reagan did sign authorizations for anti-terrorism initiatives in those years but said they did not implicitly or specifically allow killing terrorist suspects, nor were they intended to. The orders, he said, were simply “designed to authorize counterterrorism activities.”
Fitzwater asserted that the material about the presidential “findings” had appeared in a book about the CIA by Bob Woodward, one of the authors of the newspaper story.
“This is an old story being rehashed again, interestingly timed, and has no foundation,” he said.
Reagan’s 1981 executive order “was the United States policy on assassination. The written and declared policy of the government and the President is that executive order, which prohibits assassinations,” he said.
Asked if he considers the story a “political jab” at GOP presidential nominee George Bush, Fitzwater said: “Oh, I’ll let you judge for yourself.”
The story said that Bush, as vice president, would have been given a copy of the authorization findings or would have had access to them.
Bush, making a campaign appearance at a biology laboratory at Arapahoe High School in Littleton, Colo., called the report “absolutely not” true.
“To circumvent the law against assassination is absolutely absurd,” he declared. “It’s ironic that these outrageous charges surface from time to time. . . . You just gun them down.”
Times staff writer Cathleen Decker, with the Bush campaign in Littleton, Colo., contributed to this story.