‘Hit List’ Is Bad Policy

David Wise writes frequently about intelligence and is the author of "Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America."

The 2,000-pound bomb, destined for Iraq, was signed by Dick Cheney and Colin L. Powell with the inscription: “To Saddam, with affection.” Powell added a few choice words of his own: “You didn’t move it, so now you lose it.”

But this singular event did not happen on March 20, when U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles and stealth aircraft struck a residential compound in southern Baghdad where it was believed that Saddam Hussein, his two sons and other top aides were gathered. The bomb-signing took place in Saudi Arabia in 1991 -- during the Gulf War. At the time, Vice President Cheney was secretary of Defense, Secretary of State Powell chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The attempt to kill Hussein at the outset of the current war was triggered by information that CIA Director George J. Tenet brought to the president only hours before the airstrike. Hussein, the intelligence agency believed, was in a compound and would be a sitting duck for an attack. If the strike were successful, the war might be over before it began.

Afterward, there were reports that Hussein had been carried out on a stretcher and speculation that the Hussein with heavy horn-rimmed glasses who appeared on television was a double, and so on. But the Iraqi dictator has appeared on television several times since the attack to rally his troops, and he made specific references to the fighting in Basra and Baghdad. Unless his speeches were pretaped, it appeared that the attempt to kill him had failed. Even so, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and the White House raised questions last week about whether the Iraqi leader had died in the initial attack or was still among the living.


It was not the first time that the United States had sought to destroy a prominent figure with bombs or missiles. “Air assassination,” as it were, has been tried in more than half a dozen instances.

Assassination, even in a military context, raises a host of questions -- practical, political, legal, moral. But two issues are central: Is assassination a good idea? And, how can the U.S. attempt to kill a foreign leader in view of a presidential executive order that specifically bans assassination?

The Hitler analogy is often cited by supporters of state-sponsored assassination. Knocking off Der Fuhrer would certainly have shortened World War II and perhaps saved millions of lives. But Adolf Hitler survived the time bomb left in his headquarters, and some of the plotters were hanged from meat hooks by nooses of piano wire wrapped around their necks.

Hussein, who has been responsible for the deaths of countless Iraqis, might be seen as an equally tempting candidate for assassination. The White House thought so, and President Bush approved the hastily planned airstrike aimed at killing the Iraqi leader.

There was ample precedent. On April 14, 1986, President Reagan ordered an air attack directed at Libya’s Moammar Kadafi. The attack was in retaliation for the bombing, blamed on Libya, of La Belle disco in West Berlin that killed three people, including two American servicemen, and wounded more than 200 others. Kadafi’s 15-month-old adopted daughter was killed in the air raid on his compound.

During the Gulf War, President Bush’s father also tried to kill Hussein. Former CIA Director Robert M. Gates has said publicly that when the first Bush administration bombed Baghdad in 1991, the White House hoped that “Saddam Hussein would be killed in a bunker.”

Air assassination is bipartisan; in 1998, after the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Clinton ordered a cruise-missile strike against terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in the hope of killing Osama bin Laden, who was blamed for the embassy attacks that took the lives of 224 people. U.S. officials were clearly disappointed that the airstrike failed to kill Bin Laden; he had reportedly left his camp shortly before the attack.

A year later, in April 1999, North Atlantic Treaty Organization jets bombed Belgrade after Serbia forced ethnic Albanians to flee from neighboring Kosovo. A missile was lobbed into Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s bedroom, but he was not sleeping in his residence and was unharmed.

In October 2001, when President Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Pentagon received intelligence that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, was in a building southeast of Kandahar, the last Taliban stronghold in that country. It was bombed, but he escaped.

In February of last year, three Afghans, described as Al Qaeda terrorists, were killed by a missile fired by a CIA Predator drone. They were later reported to be villagers collecting scrap metal; one had the misfortune of being tall and was apparently mistaken for Bin Laden.

Then in Yemen last November, a CIA Predator fired a Hellfire missile that destroyed a car in which an Al Qaeda leader, Qaed Sinan Harithi, was believed to be riding. He was killed, along with the five others in the car, including a U.S. citizen. The American was later identified as Kamal Derwish, said by officials to be the leader of an Al Qaeda sleeper cell in New York state. Six members of the cell were arrested and charged with helping terrorists; three have pleaded guilty.

Only in the last case was the target hit, and CIA officials said they did not know that an American citizen, who had not been charged with a crime, was in the car. What these operations demonstrate is that, no matter how carefully planned, they seldom work, and sometimes kill the wrong people. Kadafi’s daughter had not harmed anyone, but she is dead.

Tempting as it may be to murder a despot, extreme cases do not make good public policy. Aside from practical considerations -- most targets have survived -- who decides which world leaders should be assassinated? Is that really the job of the president of the United States?

Moreover, there is always the chance that a bad guy in power may be replaced by someone worse. Then, too, there is a question of morality, not usually a factor in foreign policy. Yet the United States likes to think it fights just wars to affirm high principles. Operation Iraqi Freedom is not a name casually chosen for the current war. Does assassination of a foreign leader run counter to Washington’s moral stance?

After a Senate investigating committee detailed a series of attempts by the CIA to assassinate world leaders, including Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, President Ford, in 1976, issued an executive order banning political assassinations. Reagan strengthened the order in 1981 by dropping the word “political” and applying the ban to contract killers hired by the government. The executive order is still in effect.

Presidents have nevertheless targeted adversaries for annihilation by taking the position that in a military setting the ban does not apply, even though the executive order makes no such distinction. In the past, some government lawyers have argued that a command center is the target of a bombing raid, not the chief of state who happens to be there. The death of a leader, some Justice Department lawyers have maintained, would simply be an “unintended consequence” of the attack.

That sort of hair-splitting fools no one. Surely, most of the world would not mourn the demise of Hussein. Yet the Senate Intelligence Committee, which investigated the CIA’s murder plots, had a word of caution about adopting assassination as national policy. The committee quoted a remark attributed to President Kennedy: “We can’t get into that kind of thing,” he is reported to have said, “or we would all be targets.”