Drawing on the investigative work of the Church Committee, what were the main lessons learned regarding assassination plots initiated by the US government abroad? What exactly led the United States to such policy extremes? The committee identified a number of similarities and common patterns in plans to assassinate foreign leaders that took place under the watch of both Republican and Democratic administrations. First, it is crucial to recognize that all US assassinations on foreign soil had been planned and evolved in the context of the Cold War and slowly deteriorating Soviet-American relations. The very first sentence of the Church report makes a note of this fact: “The events discussed in this report must be viewed in the context of United States policy and actions designed to counter the threat of spreading Communism.”46
At the time, policymakers viewed the CIA as a “primary means of defense against Communism,” and covert operations were considered a key element in the pursuit of US strategic policy objectives. Fear of Soviet expansion was the uniting element in Washington’s desire to remove foreign heads of state from office. In Congo, the newly elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was seen as a “Castro or worse.”47 Lumumba’s Soviet sympathies were reason enough for the CIA to try to assassinate him. In the case of Cuba, an island located just 90 miles from Florida, Fidel Castro had basically granted Moscow access to the backyard of the United States, which resulted in relentless attempts against his life.
Those inside the US political establishment who had favored going after specific foreign leaders justified their position on the grounds of profound national interest—a monolithic Communist threat. Later, when the same individuals testified before the Church Committee, they all agreed that assassination was “stupid, foolish, ridiculous, unworkable; worse than a crime.” The only justification they came up with was “the climate of the time.”48 The Church Committee was not blind to the political and ideological context within which assassination plots had been planned and authorized. Still, for investigators the threat posed by the Soviet Union only explained why the phenomenon had occurred; it did not justify the measures.
The Church Committee members argued that the Cold War, intense as it was, did not change the fact that assassination was unacceptable for American-style democracy.49 In a letter to one of his constituents, Frank Church wrote, “I believe the best method of countering them [Soviets] abroad is not to imitate their tactics of subversion and deceit but to provide an example of decency and honesty for other countries to emulate.”50 The Church Committee was convinced that means were as important as ends, and that the United States should not attempt to justify its actions by the standards of totalitarian states; instead, the standards of liberal democracy had to be higher.
While acknowledging that the revealed facts about US government assassination plots were “sad,” Congressional investigators equally believed that the country had the strength to hear the story, learn from it and follow through with necessary policy adjustments.51 “Despite temporary injury to our national reputation, the Committee believes that foreign peoples will, upon sober reflection, respect the United States more for keeping faith with its democratic ideal than they will condemn us for the misconduct revealed,” the final report noted.52 As such, the introduction and formalization of the domestic assassination ban served as an expression of the US democratic character and its willingness to be associated with liberal democracy. The ban was a value orientation, containing information about the US government’s intentions and future behavior in the international realm.
Another commonality among the plots was that they all had involved relatively weak countries: Congo, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile and South Vietnam, none of which were in a position to challenge or threaten the United States. In the case of Congo, the new prime minister had “neither committed any crime nor even voiced any threat against the US.”53 He had merely reached out to the Soviet Union for assistance, flirting with the idea of establishing closer ties with Moscow. CIA Director Allen Dulles later admitted, “I think we overrated the Soviet danger, let’s say, in the Congo.”54
Similarly, US plans to kill Fidel Castro appear to have evolved primarily from political and ideological considerations, not imminent security threats to US citizens. While the report did note that, out of all the examined cases, Castro posed a real national security threat to the United States during the period of the Cuban missile crisis, it equally recalled that attempts to assassinate him “had begun long before that crisis.”55 The Church Committee did not rule out that, in exceptional circumstances, the nation could end up relying on certain covert operations, but it also added that such steps should be undertaken only when national security truly called for them, and overt means no longer sufficed.56 The situations and circumstances in which the US government had targeted foreign leaders clearly did not meet that imminent security threat threshold.
Another key takeaway from the investigation was that, as a practical matter, assassination carried many risks. The final Church Committee report pointed out that, apart from moral and ethical considerations, there were also “practical reasons” for the United States to refrain from such activities.57 Government cables and documents attest that, even for a superpower like the United States, the assassination of foreign individuals was difficult to pull off. Substantial technical expertise and financial means did not automatically lead to the intended outcomes. Countless failed attempts against Fidel Castro’s life serve as the best testimony to this.
A declassified CIA file titled “A Study of Assassination,” intended for internal CIA field-agent reading, listed diverse tools for the successful execution of assassinations. “A hammer, axe, wrench, screw driver, fire poker, kitchen knife, lamp stand, or anything hard, heavy and handy will suffice. A length of rope or wire or a belt will do if the assassin is strong and agile. All such improvised weapons have the important advantage of availability and apparent innocence,” the document advised.58 In reality, no matter how well planned, US government plots as designed had all failed. CIA Director William Colby later admitted that assassination plans had led to “absolutely uncontrolled and unforeseeable results, usually worse results than by continuing to suffer the problem that you are facing.”59 Colby elaborated on some of the lessons learned: “You think you can solve something by eliminating a guy—it’s playing God. You have no idea who is going to succeed him, you have no idea what the repercussions will be, or, the worst, you getting caught doing it.”60
What made such attempts even more complicated was the fact that the US clearly wanted to keep its hand hidden. Killing a foreign official was one thing; making it look like an accident was substantially more demanding task. “I mean you couldn’t invite [the victim] to a cocktail party and give him a drink and have him die a short time later,” explained one CIA agent who had worked for the agency in the 1970s.61 Moreover, officials were concerned that if information about foreign plots became public knowledge, this would invite “reciprocal action from foreign governments.”62 US officials could then become prime targets themselves. As Walter Mondale, a member of the Church Committee, explained, “When we pursue a strategy of assassinating foreign leaders, I think we ought to concern ourselves with the possibility that foreign leaders might decide that if we are going to play such a game against them they can play it against us.”63
The investigation further revealed that assassination plots had flourished in an atmosphere of “plausible deniability.” In every single administration there was a failure of control by the president. It was unclear where exactly the power resided in terms of ordering covert intelligence activities. During the testimony, when CIA witnesses were questioned, their answers usually involved one of the following phrases “could,” “would,” “probably,” “assume,” “might,” “have a feeling.”64 The committee concluded that many of the abuses were a result of lack of reasonable accountability requirements. Agencies were not accountable to the White House, and there was a great deal of inertia in terms of intelligence oversight. Covert activities were never cross-examined outside agency walls. While the committee provided an impressively thorough report on assassination plots, it failed to establish individual responsibility. Pinning down responsibility for covert action, Mondale complained, was “like nailing jello to a wall.”65 The committee concluded that accountability measures and procedural barriers were inadequate for covert action, and they needed to be visibly strengthened.66
Widespread suspicion about government institutions in the 1970s created an unusual window of opportunity for a major Congressional investigation. But even big opportunities by themselves do not automatically lead to changes in rules and practices. A long and fierce tug-of-war played out between those who believed it was against the nation’s interest to air the CIA’s damaging secrets and those who advocated full disclosure of facts, even at the expense of embarrassment and international condemnation. The final outcome here hinged, above all, on the ability and willingness of the individual investigators of the Church Committee to mobilize support, shame the Ford administration and coerce the government to reveal facts about its clandestine operations. After presenting the final document, a substantial body of evidence, the Church Committee laid the groundwork for the domestic assassination ban, later formalized in President Gerald Ford’s Executive Order 11905.
More than four decades have now passed since the infamous Church inquiry. Following it, the US government for a considerable time steered its foreign policy without official authorization of targeted killings.67 Before 2001, there even was considerable debate and reluctance within the US national security bureaucracy about killing individual terrorism suspects.68 Attacks on 9/11, however, had an unparalleled impact on the external behavior of the US. In the wake of the national security emergency, in order to operate with less restraint, the government reintroduced lethal authority as policy in order to go after singled-out individuals, in some ways resembling the times prior to the Church Committee.
The introduction of Predator drones markedly increased the success rate of targeted killings, which historically carried immense risks and practical complications. With time, as the technology of unmanned aerial vehicles advanced, targeted killing numbers surged to historical levels. What is equally significant is the fact that, for the most part, the US government kept the lethal program in the shadows and refused to release information regarding how and by what standards individuals could end up on a kill-list, the location of strikes or estimated civilian casualties. Using the CIA as an instrument for flying drones, both the Bush and Obama administration kept important details of such missions away from the public domain.
While the targeted persons are no longer Soviet-leaning world leaders but suspected terrorists, and poison has been replaced with sleek unmanned aircraft, the original concerns of the Church Committee remain relevant. The 1970s investigation offers a dire warning to those who intend to operate without the input of the public and routinely use lethal power, while ignoring checks and balances. History shows that by bypassing traditional democratic processes and rolling back restraints in the face of its enemies, the US government can easily slide into controversial foreign involvements and unacceptable acts. In the era of flying drones, “Church lessons” remain salient and worthy of study.
Copyright (c) 2018 Andris Banka
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