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Tuesday, 13 August, 2002, 10:51 GMT 11:51 UK
US 'considers assassination squads'
Osama Bin Laden
Bin Laden requires that niceties are dropped, US officials say
The US Government is looking into ways to expand the role of special operations forces to include sending them on covert missions to capture or kill al-Qaeda leaders around the world, the New York Times newspaper has reported.

According to the report, which quoted senior Pentagon advisers, these missions might be carried out without informing the governments of the countries involved.

It appears that these proposals are being floated and seriously considered despite a long-standing presidential order forbidding US personnel from carrying out assassinations abroad.

The New York Times says that Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is described by aides as frustrated that military operations in and around Afghanistan have reached a plateau without the elimination of al-Qaeda.

Mr Rumsfeld has apparently ordered Special Operations Command to come up with fresh thinking on how elite counter-terrorism units could be sent to "disrupt and destroy enemy assets", the paper reports.

CIA's licence to kill

Already the ban on assassination has been eroded.

In October 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency was given leave to do "whatever is necessary" to shut down al-Qaeda.

US Vice-President Dick Cheney argued that a world inhabited by the likes of Osama Bin Laden is a "mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty" one.

If America's security agencies are to halt the man accused of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, they too must put certain niceties aside, he has argued.

Fidel Castro
There may have been more than 600 assassination attempts against Fidel Castro
"Everything is under review," Secretary of State Colin Powell said at the time. This was widely seen as indicating a willingness to allow the CIA to ignore a ban on assassinations.

Amid a wave of public revulsion at so-called "covert" operations directed by the CIA against foreign leaders deemed threatening to the United States, President Gerald Ford issued Executive Order 12333 in 1976.

For over 25 years it has decreed that "no person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination".

President Ford was reacting to Senate and House committee reports both concluding that the CIA had become a "rogue elephant" crushing foreign citizens under foot in its bid to win the Cold War.

'Rogue operations'

For instance, more than 20,000 Vietnamese were killed during the CIA-guided Operation Phoenix intended to weed out communist "agents" from South Vietnam.

Rather than delivering victory, such bloodletting gave added moral momentum to those Americans protesting about their country's role in the Vietnam war.

However, the CIA's reputation was badly damaged in the 1960s and 1970s by failed, bloody and outlandish operations too.

General Augusto Pinochet with President Salvador Allende
The CIA were accused of meddling in Chile's bloody coup
Operation Mongoose sought to eliminate Cuban leader Fidel Castro with a number of unlikely weapons.

In 1963, the CIA cooked up a plot to kill Castro with an exploding cigar.

An exploding seashell was also to be placed temptingly close to Castro's favourite scuba-diving spot.

Again exploiting the revolutionary's aquatic hobby, US agents were hoping to make him a gift of a deadly "contaminated" wet suit.

While Castro survived these (and other less comic) attempts on his life, others were less fortunate.

Coup backers

The family of Chilean general Rene Schneider is currently suing former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former CIA boss Richard Helms for their alleged involvement in a bungled 1970 kidnapping which left the soldier dead.

Schneider had opposed any military coup aimed at denying socialist Salvador Allende the Chilean presidency. Allende came to power but was later killed in just such a CIA-backed rebellion, led by General Pinochet.

Ahmed Shah Masood
Bin Laden is thought to have assassinated the Taleban's rival Ahmed Shah Masood (l)
Though Executive Order 12333 outlawed "assassination", Jane's Intelligence Review says the CIA continues to initiate operations which "indirectly" jeopardise the lives of foreign adversaries - most notably Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Critics have said the CIA's support for coup organisers and rebel groups keen to eliminate figures such as Saddam makes a mockery of 12333.

However, charges of hypocrisy are hard to assess because the order fails to define what "assassination" actually is, says Dr Kevin O'Brien, an expert on intelligence and asymmetric warfare at the Rand Institute.

Actively seeking the death of Osama Bin Laden may not constitute "assassination", rather the "decapitation of a military command structure".

All's fair in war

"Because the United States has effectively declared war, this is a situation of conflict and Bin Laden is a legitimate target under international law," says Dr O'Brien.

However, actually killing the al-Qaeda leader may only serve to make a martyr of him and win the terror network willing new recruits.

Plotting to kill Bin Laden and failing - as President Clinton says happened while he was in office - may also strengthen his hand.

Fidel Castro, still ensconced in power in Cuba having seen 10 US presidents come and go, revels in the kudos of having survived a reported 637 assassination attempts.

"I don't feel worthy of such a high honour," he once said.

Key stories

European probe


See also:

21 Oct 01 | South Asia
23 Oct 01 | Americas
23 Sep 01 | Americas
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