WASHINGTON — If the CIA's assassination specialists had succeeded in one of their wackier plots against Fidel Castro in the 1960s, the Cuban leader's likely complaint, "My feet are killing me," would have been literally correct.
The spy agency, aware that Castro's favorite sport was skin diving, planned to have an intermediary present him with a diving suit contaminated with Madura foot, a rare, tropical fungus disease that begins in the foot, then slowly spreads throughout the body, destroying skin, bone and limbs.
But Castro never got the diving suit. Nor did the Mafia chiefs hired by the CIA to kill Castro ever manage to slip botulinum toxin into his soup, although the capsules, when tested, killed several CIA monkeys.
The controversial subject of assassination as an instrument of foreign policy has arisen again, three decades later, because of the carnage in Kosovo. In barrooms, living rooms and perhaps even in certain corridors of power in Washington, the suggestion is heard that one solution to the crisis in the Balkans would be to dispose of Yugoslavia's president, Slobodan Milosevic.
During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency plotted against eight foreign leaders, five of whom died violently, with the agency's role varying in each case. If the CIA failed to kill these targets, such as Castro and the Congo's Patrice Lumumba, it was not for want of trying. President Gerald R. Ford put an end to this scheming in 1976, when he issued an executive order barring assassination. His successors have honored the ban.
Ford's order stated that no U.S. government "employee" shall engage in "political assassination." Author and intelligence analyst Jeffrey T. Richelson points out that the order was "significantly broadened" by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan's order dropped the word "political" so the ban would apply, for example, to military figures or others; it covers not only government employees but persons "acting on behalf of" the U.S., such as contract killers.
The ban, however, has eroded over time. The biggest loophole has been the emergence and high-level acceptance of the position that if a foreign capital is bombed, and the leader of the target country just happens to be killed, that's not an assassination, it's an accident, a casualty of war.
Milosevic is the monster of the moment. But Washington never seems to lack an unpleasant world leader to demonize. A decade ago, it was Libya's Moammar Kadafi. His successor was Saddam Hussein of Iraq. After the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa last summer, the crown passed to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi terrorist.
Against this background, the assassination ban seems a good deal less firm than when Ford promulgated it in the wake of disclosures of the CIA murder plots by the Senate Intelligence Committee. When U.S. warplanes bombed Libya in April 1986, they killed Kadafi's infant adopted daughter and injured two of his young sons, according to Kadafi's physician.
Former CIA director Robert M. Gates said publicly last year that when the Bush administration bombed Baghdad in 1991, during the Persian Gulf conflict, White House officials hoped that "Saddam Hussein would be killed in a bunker." At an air base in Saudi Arabia that year, the nation's two senior military officials, Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed a 2,000-pound laser-guided bomb destined for Iraq. "To Saddam with affection," Cheney wrote. Powell added his own inscription: "You didn't move it, so now you lose it."
When U.S. cruise missiles struck Afghanistan last August, the Clinton administration's national-security officials were clearly disappointed that the airstrike failed to kill bin Laden. In December, after Hussein refused to readmit United Nations weapons inspectors, the U.S. again bombed Iraq. One reported target destroyed in the attack was the house where Hussein saw his mistress. Since the United States presumably had no quarrel with the mistress, Washington clearly hoped the Iraqi leader would be visiting her when the bombs fell.
Despite the official assassination ban, NATO bombers destroyed much of Milosevic's Belgrade residence on Thursday, and Yugoslav officials called it an "assassination attempt." Although the attack literally lobbed a missile into Milosevic's bedroom, President Bill Clinton denied that NATO was directly trying to hit the Yugoslav president, who was not home at the time. But, he added, "We are targeting command and control facilities." Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said, "We are targeting the head of this military regime," although his comment was ambiguous as to whether he meant Milosevic personally or the "command and control system of the regime."
During last year's congressional elections, Rep. Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican, suggested that the assassination ban be lifted. "One bullet at Hitler at the right time might have saved millions of lives," Bond said.