Note: The following is a new syndicated article written by Andris Banka for the academic journal USAbroad, titled “Church Lessons: Revisiting America’s Assassination Ban.” (It has been edited for length and clarification.) The author is Assistant Professor in Politics at Cag University in Turkey. He has taught courses on U.S. foreign policy at the University of Birmingham, UK, and holds degrees in international politics from institutions in the UK, United States, the Netherlands and Latvia.
Since the 2016 election, the media has been filled with borderline paranoid stories about the ‘deep state’ which are high on sensationalism and low on real analysis, as well as articles and commentary that uncritically accept assertions of U.S. intelligence officials. Therefore, it’s worth revisiting the history of the most thoroughgoing official probe into U.S. intelligence operations and their effects.
The Church Committee, a Congressional body that studied the dark record of espionage and targeted assassinations of political and social activists at home and abroad, provided shocking revelations for many when it issued its reports in 1975-76. In an interview on Meet the Press, Sen. Frank Church, the chairman who gave his name to the investigative body, offered this prophetic warning:
If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.
On the domestic side, the committee most famously unmasked the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations of subversion and violence aimed at destroying the Black Panthers and other radical groups. Banka’s article, which we present in three parts, deals with its inquiry into US assassination plots abroad, particularly as background to President Gerald Ford’s Executive Order 11905, which declared in 1976, “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” While Washington Babylon’s editors don’t agree with every one of Banka’s conclusions, his study is highly interesting to read, and especially now.
Readers interested in reading the full Church Committee reports can see them here: —Andrew Stewart, Managing Editor/Webmaster
The following essay sets out to provide a historical account of the first assassination ban in the United States. As such, it traces the roots of the prohibition, analyzes processes and forces at work that shaped its path towards acceptance, and looks at the wider political context in which the introduction of such prohibition was possible. Recently declassified US National Security Archive materials—testimonies, notes, raw files and other forms of political correspondence—provide a solid basis for comprehensive examination of America’s historical assassination plots abroad, a subject that often cannot be easily investigated due to its politically sensitive nature. The centerpiece of this study is the Church Committee. Chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church, the committee was formed in 1975 to investigate allegations of various wrongdoings in US intelligence agencies, including plots to assassinate foreign leaders.
The material made available to the public as a result of the committee endeavors is considered to be the most thorough public record about modern US intelligence bureaucracy and its hidden activities. The so-called “Year of Intelligence” was by far the most extensive probe into the covert world of US intelligence. As once described by CIA Director William Colby, it was an “inspection of almost thirty years of CIA’s sins.”1 The investigation symbolizes a high-water mark moment when US officials for the first time drew a public red line with respect to assassination as an illegitimate and unacceptable means of foreign policy. The article details the process by which the assassination ban came into force, exposing the US government’s inner debates, justifications and strategic reasoning behind attempts to assassinate foreign individuals.
While the analysis presented here concerns historical events, it equally speaks to the current situation. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the US government embarked on a vast campaign to eliminate suspected terrorists outside conventional combat settings via singled-out drone strikes. Targeted killing, a method that had historically served as a last-resort self-defensive option, was turned into a central tool for addressing national security threats. While publicly the assassination ban was not disavowed, policies pursued by both the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama clearly violated previously established boundaries.
As this analysis reconstructs the work of the Church Committee to reveal government related secrets—its leading figures, methods and strategies—it in turn illuminates the path and conditions under which the US government is likely to undergo a process of democratic self-correction, something that many policy observers and human rights activists have called for in light of routine targeted killings via drones. Such historical contextualization makes it possible to draw comparisons and highlights how the meaning of “appropriate” behavior has changed over time.
Establishing the Church Committee
The roots of the US assassination ban lie in domestic processes and politics. While the overall context of the prohibition was external—the US government had attempted or hoped to carry out assassination plots in Congo, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile and Vietnam—the ban itself originated from within the US domestic arena. It was the result of a democracy examining itself and attempting to make necessary policy adjustments. As such, the narrative here concerns the national level in which certain actors can challenge and, consequently, change the rules of behavior from within the state.
In December 1974, journalist Seymour Hersh broke a story on the cover of The New York Times detailing numerous illegal domestic intelligence operations against anti-war activists and other political dissidents.2 That investigative article sparked a political firestorm. While some government officials, President Gerald Ford included, had hoped that the scandal would somehow subside on its own, the accusations were far too egregious for that to happen. A number of newspapers across the nation reprinted Hersh’s story, and Congressional offices were inundated with thousands of letters from citizens demanding an explanation.3 Hersh’s article had triggered a nationwide discussion about the role and purpose of the CIA and the extent to which it should make use of clandestine operations without the public’s input.
On January 21, 1975, Senator John O. Pastore put forward legislation to establish a Senate Select Committee to investigate possible unlawful government activities. The measure passed by a landslide—82 to 4—and a bipartisan group of eleven Senators was established with broad powers.4 Trying to capture the sentiment of the day, the committee’s chair, Senator Frank Church, famously described the CIA as “a rogue elephant rampaging out of control.”5 He interpreted the mandate given to this committee as follows: “To determine what secret governmental activities are necessary and how they best can be conducted under the rule of law.”6
Initially, domestic issues were at the top of the committee’s agenda. Inquiry into foreign assassination plots emerged only gradually and, in some ways, even accidentally when on January 16, 1975, during a lunch with the editors of The New York Times, President Gerald Ford made a careless remark, mentioning that previous administrations, among other secretive operations abroad, had also been engaged in plotting assassinations.7
Daniel Schorr of CBS News quickly took up the question with CIA Director William Colby, directly confronting him as to whether the agency had ever been involved in assassination plots.8 Surprised and cornered, Colby awkwardly replied, “Not in this country.” 9 Responding to public and media pressure, Senator Church announced that the inquiry would also examine possible government assassination plots. Church was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, “In the absence of war no agency can have a license to murder, and the President can’t be a Godfather.”10 Due to its highly sensational nature, the topic of assassinations soon became the most talked about news in the country.
Many years later, Richard Helms, former CIA Director, would say that by letting the cat out of the bag President Ford had displayed “terrible judgment” in this particular situation.11
All things considered, a number of events and dynamics allowed for the creation of an investigative body as powerful as the Church Committee to scrutinize highly sensitive US intelligence matters. Only a few years had passed since the Watergate scandal, during which the public’s trust in government institutions had seriously eroded. When accusations about intelligence wrongdoings first surfaced, government officials were not in a position to sweep them under the rug. The CIA’s approval rating at the time had sunk to 14 percent.12 As chairman of the committee, Church pointed out that political elites did not have the strength to resist “the tidal shift in attitude.”13
Past political scandals during the Richard Nixon years—excessive government secrecy, cover-ups, lies and illegal wiretapping—had paved the way for substantial normative rethinking and wide-scale reforms regarding the functioning of intelligence agencies. In the post-Watergate era, Congress was willing to grant broad authority with substantial investigatory powers to an independent body in order to examine highly sensitive matters. It was the accumulated disbelief in government and intelligence structures that made this unprecedented inquiry possible in the first place.
A Fight for the Assassination Report
This is not to say that the assassination ban was inevitable. Early on, a clear battle line was drawn between those who advocated full disclosure of the facts and those who believed that it was not in the nation’s best interest to bring out the CIA’s dark secrets. Intense clashes regarding this matter took place in different corridors of power, most notably the White House and the CIA. Having obtained a broad investigative mandate, the Church Committee was eager to do everything in its power to deliver a detailed report on the topic of assassinations, while the Ford administration together with intelligence agencies pulled in exactly the opposite direction, trying to stonewall such efforts and suppress information for disclosure.
A series of declassified government memos and cables document an intense and lengthy behind-the-scenes struggle between the Congressional committee and the Ford administration. As soon as the Hersh story broke, the White House, with then-National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in charge, kept a close eye on the developments. Early communication between Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld, then White House Chief of Staff, indicate that the administration, caught by surprise, was initially not aware of the full extent of the CIA’s illegal activities.14 After studying the issue in greater detail, however, Kissinger warned President Ford that the first revelations were only “the tip of the iceberg” and that if further newspaper reporting on this issue was not stopped, then “blood will flow.”15
From the beginning, the Ford administration sharply resisted the idea that an independent Congressional group should be granted limitless access to highly sensitive intelligence materials. “Asking for information is one thing, but going through the files is another,” Kissinger fumed in a closed-door meeting.16 He believed that, by disclosing various unsavory intelligence activities, the investigation threatened to leave the country “naked in a vital area of national security.”17 Kissinger would become a frontline figure in the fight against the committee’s investigative efforts and often worked the backrooms, trying to persuade members of Congress that publishing scandalous foreign assassination plots would do the country no good.
Many in the Ford administration feared that if the committee started revealing the CIA’s “skeletons,” this would severely damage relations with countries like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Laos and Congo.18 Addressing a joint session of Congress shortly after accusations in the press, President Ford stated: “It is entirely proper that this system be subject to Congressional review. But a sensationalized public debate over legitimate intelligence activities is a disservice to the nation and a threat to our intelligence system. It ties our hands while our potential enemies operate with secrecy, with skill and with vast resources.”19 Later, in his memoirs, President Ford only sharpened this point by suggesting that the only thing this inquiry could achieve was to cripple the intelligence apparatus.20 Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld’s successor as Chief of Staff, who played an important role in framing the administration’s response to the Congressional investigation, had a similar reading of the situation, holding to the belief that possible exposure of assassinations would ruin US intelligence capacity.21 [Following the September 11 attacks, Cheney, then vice president, argued that intelligence agencies had been constrained since the Congressional oversight of the 1970s, making it necessary, post-9/11, for the US to “take the gloves off.” Eds.] In short, the White House believed that the massive inquiry could seriously damage the CIA, and therefore was poised to protect it.
Resistance and hostility toward the Church Committee was also strongly felt inside the CIA, which was only logical, given that the agency’s reputation now hinged on the revelations of this inquiry. In the words of CIA Director William Colby, he had been “flung into a struggle to prevent an investigation into the subject of assassinations” because the only thing an investigation into the matter could accomplish was to do serious “harm to the good name of the United States.”22 Colby was quoted saying, “These exaggerations and misinterpretations of CIA activities can do irreparable harm to our national intelligence apparatus and if carried to the extreme could blindfold our country as it looks abroad.”23 The Church Committee was visibly at odds with the Ford administration and the CIA over exposure of highly secretive operations.
Publicly, however, the Ford administration applied a different posture and attempted to create an impression of good will and cooperation in its dealings with the investigators. President Ford had openly declared full assistance on the issue of assassinations.24 When asked about the handover of highly classified data to investigators, White House Press Secretary Ron Nessen described the process as “easy” and “without serious obstacles.”25 Nessen stated, “As far as I know, nothing has been denied.” In reality, White House staff was instructed to do everything in its power to shield sensitive information regarding assassination plots, and secretly put various bureaucratic hurdles in the committee’s way. Senator Church had expected to encounter fact-finding problems and bureaucratic resistance, but assumed that once officials were convinced that this was a judicious inquiry, the committee would be entrusted with sensitive information.26 This never fully materialized, as resistance from the Executive Branch intensified exponentially.
Copyright (c) 2018 Andris Banka
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.