Is it Time to Kill Saddam?

Shoot, poison, booby trap, strangle, or garrote -- the CIA is ready for (executive) action

By Jeff Stein
Published September 12, 1996 9:01AM (EDT)


bring me the head of Saddam Hussein.

So goes a swelling American chorus as the maverick Iraqi president routs a CIA-backed Kurdish army, taunts the White House and calls for a "holy war" of terrorism against the United States.

Is it time to kill Saddam -- roll back the 20-year-old ban on political assassinations and go after the Iraqi leader himself? A growing number of influential Washington officials, including Gen. Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to George Bush, think so.

"I think we should get rid of him," Scowcroft said on Fox News Sunday. "It's past time that we got rid of him."

Political assassinations were banned by President Gerald Ford in 1976 after the U.S. Senate heard testimony on CIA murder plots against Cuba's Fidel Castro, the Congo's Patrice Lumumba, and Dominican president Rafael Trujillo, among others. But years of terrorist attacks, culminating recently with the explosion of TWA Flight 800, have provoked nostalgia for the good old days of "executive action."

So, are we about to see the U.S. start "whacking" terrorists with car bombs and silenced pistols? Is it legal or moral? Yes, argues Louis Rene Beres, professor of international law at Purdue University. "Punishment of violent crime is always at the very heart of justice, and in our decentralized system of world law, self-help by individual nations is often the only available path."

But is it doable? Although hundreds of CIA covert action specialists were put on the shelf in the Ford and Carter administrations, the agency never gave up its capability to shoot, poison, booby trap, strangle, or garrote human targets, intelligence sources say. In 1991, says a former CIA officer, "I saw a videotape presentation that outlines U.S. capabilities -- by deep, deep-level Green Beret units -- to carry out assassination."

In 1991, according to three ex-intelligence operatives from the FBI and CIA, the Bush administration considered a plan to infiltrate Libya and assassinate terrorists thought to be responsible for blowing up Pan Am 103 over Scotland. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh rejected it, one said. "I don't know if it included Khadafi," one CIA officer said.

During Desert Storm, "we actively sought Saddam" Hussein, said another former CIA officer. Responsibility for the mission, which apparently failed to get close enough to the Iraqi president to kill him, was in the hands of a paramilitary unit in the CIA's Directorate of Operations, he says.

U.S. assassins were deployed in Somalia and Panama, too, two former CIA officers said, underscoring that they were part of a military operation.

"Let's put it this way," said one of the ex-CIA officers. "If we've got an accessible target and we can get to him, we'll go get him. If assassination was deemed necessary," he added, "there are units that would carry that out. I hope nobody's surprised about that. I mean -- my God!"

A retired FBI official, who worked with the CIA in establishing the government's Joint Terrorism Task Force in the 1980s, says no political hits were carried out on his watch. Instead, the United States has favored a "law enforcement approach" -- arresting and trying perpetrators of the World Trade Center bombing, for example.

Some experts now argue that's not enough.

"I'm saying we should use law enforcement, but not exclusively," says Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer, who recommends missile attacks on foreign terrorist bases. "We don't need to go out with assassination teams," Johnson said, which are
"often counterproductive" and can provoke yet another cycle of terrorism.

Brent Scowcroft rejects tit-for-tat spasms in response to terrorist attacks, in favor of long-range intelligence-gathering on terrorist groups. "What we need is to get inside them and break them up before they do something," he said in a separate television interview.

The problem with that, counters Larry Johnson, is that it would require the CIA to put thugs and murderers on its payroll, a tactic that backfired when CIA connections to Guatemalan torturers was revealed earlier this year. The public and the politicians, he says, "want it both ways: Get the information on scumbags but don't deal with scumbags. Which way is it going to be? To infiltrate terrorist groups, he warns, "you're going to have to deal with a lot of unsavory characters."

Nor are there many CIA officials today who would put their names on an order to assassinate a foreign leader, all the experts say. "They'd be crazy if they did," says one. "Nobody's going to make a move without getting Bill Clinton's signature on the dotted line."

In the end, air strikes may not be as sexy as back-alley assassinations, but they are probably the best among unattractive options. "We've got to be careful not to overreact," says Clint Van Zandt, who created personality profiles of serial killers and terrorists for the FBI. "We've got to be careful not to be an industrial giant flailing at gnats buzzing at our head."

Nor should we take up methods that make us no better than the terrorists themselves, says former FBI special agent Carter Cornick, a terrorism expert.

"We've got to enforce the law, not make our own," Cornick says. "Bring them to the bar of justice, and lock them up."

Quote of the day

Battered dictator syndrome

"It's like he's giving us entree now to turn everything to rubble -- amazing. We give Saddam too much credit as a strategic thinker."

-- Unnamed Pentagon official on Saddam Hussein's launching missiles at U.S. warplanes. (From
Thursday's New York Times

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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