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Reviewing the Presidential Ban on Assassinations
An Essay by NPR's Daniel Schorr

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Daniel Schorr
Daniel Schorr

Sept. 17, 2001 -- The presidential ban on assassinations may or may not be formally rescinded. It is in any event being treated by the Bush administration as -- pardon the expression -- a dead letter.

The prohibition on government-sponsored assassinations goes back to the Ford administration in the wake of revelations that under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, the CIA had plotted the murder of eight foreign leaders, most notably Fidel Castro, but also including Sukarno of Indonesia, Lumumba of the Congo and Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.

In February 1976, President Ford signed Executive Order 12333, forbidding anyone employed by the United States government to engage in or conspire to engage in assassination.

Successive presidents renewed the order, but found ways of evading it. The Reagan administration adopted an interpretation exempting death incidental to a military action. Ordering the bombing of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's compound in Libya in 1986, President Reagan said he wasn't trying to get one man, and added, "I don't think any of us would have shed any tears if that happened."

"A 25-year-old executive order reflecting the reaction to some mindless, Cold War plotting against Castro and other Third World leaders seems totally out of joint after the events of last Tuesday."

Daniel Schorr

A similarly dry-eyed President George Bush ordered the bombing of the presidential palace in Baghdad in 1991 during the Gulf War and said, "We're not in the position of targeting Saddam Hussein, but no one will weep for him when he is gone."

Another interpretation of the assassination ban during the Clinton administration made an exception for killing a foreign leader engaged in terrorism against America. Mr. Clinton signed a secret order authorizing the use of lethal force against Osama bin Laden's organization. That he might not survive such an operation was generally understood.

In 1991, I wrote in The Washington Post, "It is time to change Executive Order 12333 to spare us from presidential double-talk about designs on the lives of foreign foes." That issue arises again. The Clinton order to go after bin Laden's organization is still in effect. The Bush administration is in the process of making its own search-and-destroy plans.

A 25-year-old executive order reflecting the reaction to some mindless, Cold War plotting against Castro and other Third World leaders seems totally out of joint after the events of last Tuesday.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for NPR.