Note: The following is Part 2 of a new syndicated article written by Andris Banka for the academic journal USAbroad, titled “Church Lessons: Revisiting America’s Assassination Ban.” The author is Assistant Professor in Politics at Cag University in Turkey. Four decades ago, the Senate Select Committee chaired by Senator Frank Church shocked the nation when it reported on its investigations into America’s history of espionage and targeted assassinations of social activists at home and abroad. Banka’s article (here lightly edited for length and clarification) deals with the Church Committee’s 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 at the present moment.
Those interested in reading the full Church Committee reports can see them here: —Andrew Stewart, Managing Editor/Webmaster
As documented in a series of declassified government memos and cables, the struggle over information between Congressional investigators and the White House was intense. In order to effectively evade the Church Committee, the Ford administration decided to evoke national security. Henry Kissinger outlined the approach that should be followed in a closed-door meeting: “We must say this involves the profoundest national security. Then we could go to the public and say that they [the Church Committee] are undermining the country.”27 References to national security soon became the key ideational block around which opposition was mobilized. When calls for transparency and accountability surfaced, the White House swatted them away, arguing that the exposure of certain information would severely undermine the safety of the nation, and tarnish its good name.
On the opposing side, facing systematic delays and unwillingness to cooperate, the Church Committee developed its own strategy for obtaining the material it needed. Loch Johnson, who served as an assistant to the committee, captured the fundamental issue facing investigators: “We were unable to dance alone. Like it or not, our partner was the executive branch, for it had what we needed to conduct the inquiry: information on intelligence activities.”28 As a counterstrategy to the administration’s unwillingness to share information, the committee often relied upon public shaming.
Here the long shadow of Watergate played in the Church Committee’s favor. Frederick Schwarz, chief counsel to the committee, points out that investigators were keenly aware that the Ford administration could not afford to be seen as obstructionist to the public.29 Caught between advisers who advocated confronting the committee at any cost and fear of being seen in the same disgraceful light as his predecessor, Richard Nixon, President Ford ended up transferring valuable materials to investigators.
The Church Committee used the public domain to empower itself, influence public perceptions and pressure the White House to cooperate. Initially, Church himself had promised not to create “a legislative carnival,” or “television extravaganza,” out of the investigation.30 He ended up keeping his word only partially. On the one hand, Church dismissed the suggestion that questioning of CIA officials should be held in public. Still, when facing off against an obstructive executive branch, his position changed slightly. During one televised session, for example, Church purposefully displayed a secret CIA weapon: a poison dart gun that the agency had developed explicitly for assassination plots. The optics of the senator holding an exotic weapon stunned the public and showcased how far the CIA had gone in its plans to assassinate foreign leaders.
After finally completing the report titled “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders,” the Church Committee, as previously agreed, first forwarded it to the White House for an internal private reading. Having opposed the committee’s work all along, the Ford administration now doubled down on its efforts. The assassination report, 247 pages long, was incredibly detailed and highly embarrassing to the US government. It described the government’s perception that Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was a serious political threat.31 Lumumba’s removal was deemed to be an “urgent and prime objective.”32 To that end, in the fall of 1960, two CIA agents were clearly instructed to assassinate Lumumba. To carry out the mission, the agency turned to a well-known chemist. Under the code name “Joe from Paris,” the chemist prepared a poison that was supposed to be injected into the victim’s toothpaste.33 As it happened, such exotica was not necessary. Lumumba had gained other enemies, and in the end was shot dead on January 17, 1961, by Congolese rivals with direct assistance from the Belgian government. Nonetheless, the Church Committee established that the CIA was fully prepared to kill the legitimate leader of Congo.
In the second examined case, the committee found “concrete evidence” of at least eight plots involving the CIA to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro between 1960 and 1965.34 Revolutionary Cuba, and Castro in particular, infuriated Washington. Over the years, in its plans to kill Fidel, the CIA had reached out to foreign citizens with a criminal background, Mafia-type personalities as well as Cubans hostile to Castro’s government. While some of the assassination schemes, such as an exploding seashell and diving suit contamination, were abandoned “at the laboratory stage,” others advanced well beyond that, including dispatching teams to commit the act.35 In the end, all attempts were unsuccessful. In the other three cases examined, the Church Committee found less direct authorizations for assassination, while still detecting Washington’s fingerprints in the killing of political leaders in the Dominican Republic, Chile and Vietnam.
Realizing how detailed, shocking and embarrassing the assassination report was, President Ford insisted on limiting its availability only to the Senate and House Select Committees. The administration suggested addressing past mistakes quietly, behind closed doors. In a major speech, his first since reading the assassination report, President Ford applauded the committee’s efforts and described the produced document as “fair, frank and balanced.” While expressing his total opposition to assassinations, the president nonetheless urged the committee not to make the report public due to the “extremely sensitive matters” it contained.36 In Ford’s view, it was enough that he had instructed intelligence agencies that “under no circumstances should any agency in government participate in or plan for any assassination of a foreign leader.”37 This clearly did not please the Church Committee, which all along had counted on public release of the report. Senator Church dismissed the claims that exposure of the CIA’s past mistakes served no useful purpose. “I don’t accept that thesis. We need to know what went on and the degree to which assassination was an instrument of foreign policy,” Church insisted.38
The confrontation between both sides reached its peak at the end of November 1975. Fearing that the committee might strike on its own and publish the report, President Ford sent a “strongly worded” letter urging members of the Select Committee not to make it public.39 Chairman Church responded with equal boldness: an ultimatum threatening to resign unless the report was published. Consequently, the two reached a compromise. The report would be sent to the full Senate, which would then decide what to do with it: keep it classified or make it public. After several hours of intense discussion, the Senate was unwilling to take a clear stand. It refused to block the document’s release; at the same time it did not approve of publication of the material.40 Instead, it sent the report back to the Church Committee, suggesting that its own internal decision would be the final one. With all eleven members of the committee voting in favor, the assassination report finally became available to the wider public. In the end, the committee had prevailed and managed to present its findings, laying the necessary groundwork for a formal assassination ban.
Different end results were not only possible, but at times even appeared more likely. Every step of the way, the committee faced stiff bureaucratic resistance. Intelligence agencies had to be systematically pushed to cooperate, and individual committee members were crucial in forcing the topic of assassinations into the open. The inquiry could have concluded with a report that was available exclusively to the Congress but not the general public. The final document could have been watered down, describing events in fuzzy generic terms, a result that would have pleased the Ford administration. Instead, the Church Committee produced a 247-page report exposing secret conversations of political elites with great specificity.
The unsanitized language in the report was no coincidence. The document was purposefully crafted to shock the public about government abuses and build momentum to introduce a formal assassination ban. For example, it revealed that in Congo, the agency had prepared toxic biological materials to assassinate Patrice Lumumba. One station officer testified that he had received “rubber gloves, a mask, and a syringe along with lethal biological material … to be injected into some substance that Lumumba would ingest.”41 In the case of Fidel Castro, the agency had explored the following devices to kill the Cuban leader: a “contaminated diving suit, exploding seashell, poison pills, poison pens, deadly bacterial powders, and other devices which strain the imagination.”42
The Church Committee had accumulated a massive amount of data comprising more than 8,000 pages of testimony taken from over seventy-five witnesses, including individuals at the highest echelons of power.43 Investigators managed to get their hands on virtually all White House authorizations for foreign intelligence activities and, consequently, were able to present a complete anatomy of US assassination plots abroad.44 In reaction to the report, on February 18, 1976, President Ford issued Executive Order 11905, which stated: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.”45
To be continued…
Copyright (c) 2018 Andris Banka
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.