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Friday, 21 September, 2001, 09:17 GMT 10:17 UK
Fighting a 'dirty war'
By BBC world affairs correspondent William Horsley
In times of crisis, American leaders look to the Central Intelligence Agency to do their dirty work.
President George W Bush characterises his "war on terrorism" as a battle to maintain freedom.
The CIA would again be called on to do the dirty work.
Meanwhile, the US Congress looks like baulking at proposals to enact radical changes to the law, to allow a clamp down on potential terrorists by giving government agencies sweeping extra powers.
Following the devastating attacks on New York and Washington, US leaders fear that more terrorists are in hiding in the country, waiting perhaps to unleash even more terrible destruction using germ warfare or chemical weapons.
President Bush has declared Osama Bin Laden the prime suspect for last week's outrages, and declared him "wanted: dead or alive".
Last Sunday US Vice-President Dick Cheney announced the determination of the US to strike back at terrorists who threaten America, using their own methods.
He said the US had no choice. It must launch into "the mean, nasty, dirty, dangerous business" of infiltrating terrorist networks, to try to eliminate them.
But what about the law? In 1976 President Gerald Ford signed an executive order prohibiting US leaders from ordering the assassination of foreign leaders.
But President George W Bush could rescind that order by himself any time he chooses.
Would that be politically astute? Probably not, say many policy experts in Washington.
The assassination ban was imposed in response to a series of Congressional inquiries which unearthed evidence of several CIA plots to kill foreign leaders, including the Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The extent of the CIA's involvement remains a matter of debate.
At about the same time, the CIA was active in many states in Africa and Latin America, working to undermine left-wing regimes hostile to the US.
Their efforts often resulted in right-wing juntas coming to power which then suppressed civil rights and were responsible for widespread abuses of human rights.
In Vietnam and across Indochina at that time, working mostly in secret, the CIA played a key part in trying to counter the rising communist insurgency and to sustain in power leaders who would be pliable and friendly towards the US.
Their efforts failed, as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia fell like "dominoes" to the victorious communist armies.
To many anti-war and civil rights leaders in the US, the final straw came with the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.
America suffered a new trauma when it emerged that President Richard Nixon had ordered agents to break in to the Watergate Hotel in Washington, the election campaign headquarters of his Democratic rival.
Opinion in the US is divided on the question: should the president have the right, in extreme cases, to order the death of an enemy abroad?
Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat, seemed in no doubt when he told the Senate that every means must be used to eliminate the ability of America's enemies to attack.
"If that means we have to have the authority to assassinate people before they can assassinate us, yes, we should free that stricture", he said.
Others suggest the letter of the law is irrelevant.
A former top CIA lawyer, Jeffrey Smith, told the BBC: "If the president so directed, the US could attack Osama Bin Laden and his headquarters, not to kill him but to use force. And if in the course of that he were to be killed, no-one would shed many tears."
The question is also being asked: should the CIA be freed from existing restraints on employing unsavoury or even criminal individuals, in order to wage the "war against terrorism"?
Again, experts suggest that the secret services are not really constrained by present rules, which simply oblige them to record the known facts whenever they recruit someone with a dubious past.
The CIA's spokesman, Bill Harlow, said the CIA has "never turned down a field request to recruit an asset in a terrorist organisation".
And Jeffrey Smith, the former CIA lawyer who is a member of the prestigious US Council on Foreign Relations says: "The CIA and the FBI have used scoundrels and crooks for years."
What's more, says Mr Smith, by using these methods the US has successfully penetrated or exposed several terrorist networks and foiled a number of potentially deadly attacks on US cities in recent years.
The "dirty and dangerous" war is not new. But since the loss of more than 6,000 lives in the attacks on the US last week, it has grown more deadly.
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