Revealing Secrets by Pulling Our Plug in Public
Essentially, since Gerald Ford learned that the CIA had attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro and issued Executive Order 11905, the standing policy of the United States has been that targeted assassinations and specifically the special targeting of foreign heads of state were forbidden. President Reagan formalized this policy when he issued Executive Order 12333 that remains in force today with a number of amendments and clarifications. Excerpted from EO12333:
2.11 Prohibition on Assassination. No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in or conspire to engage in assassination.
2.12 Indirect Participation. No element of the Intelligence Community shall participate in or request any person to undertake activities forbidden by this Order.
So the question remains whether al Qaeda and Taliban leaders (and by extension any of the leadership of al Qaeda clone organizations) are literally "heads of state" and whether they are somehow protected under 12333 and its further extensions. Even if they are not protected, today's political sentiment is leaning toward hindsight rejection or even criminalization of the policies and the people who established them in response to the "sudden onset" of the Global War on Terror on September 11, 2001.
Just this week the Director of the Central Intelligence agency, Leon Panetta, terminated a special training program intended to prepare agents to search out and kill al Qaeda leaders.
The plan to kill top al-Qaeda leaders, which had been on the agency's back burner for much of the past eight years, was suddenly thrust into the spotlight because of proposals to initiate what one intelligence official called a "somewhat more operational phase."
It is the disclosure of a banned policy, not the policy itself, that are a concern here. Although the merits will be debated, a "Presidential Finding" issued by George Bush following the attacks gave the Agency the authority to use deadly force against al Qaeda leaders, with no geographic restrictions and no obligation to notify Congress of any planned actions. Without knowing the details, it is interesting to observe that the claims of not telling Congress about clearly covert activities beg the question of whether any of those in Congress who claim a need to know, hold security clearance high enough to actually receive the information.
So while it is permissible to send Predator drones in after suspected terrorist hideouts or to kill terrorists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in an air strike, the creating of trained, armed teams is not. One of the problems cited was that while the Agency tried to assemble a team of anti-terrorist assassins. But officials could not solve logistical problems, including how to get close to targets while keeping U.S. involvement secret.
Yet in times past, back in the 1960's and 1970's there were covert operations known as the Phoenix Program (or alternatively, Project Phoenix) specifically intended to find and "neutralize" elements of the Vietnamese "infrastructure" (Viet Cong) that was destabilizing the country and interfering with U.S. efforts.
While some could argue contrary, it would be hard to consider al Qaeda or its leaders "heads of state." There is historic precedent for "special operations" similar to those publicly banned by the DCI. And further, to seek to punish policies and policy makers for steps taken to defend the country after the attacks, even if by "conflict of conscience" the new Administration cannot agree, seems to deflect the real issue of continuing the fight against those who attacked the United States nearly eight years ago. That history cannot and should not be revised.