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Reviving U.S.-backed assassinations?

With talk of President George W. Bush ending the ban on CIA assassinations, just what can the United States expect from squads of trained U.S. killers, based on past performance? The answer may be not very good.
/ Source: NBC News producer

With talk of President Bush’s ending the ban on CIA assassinations, just how well can the United States expect its squads of trained U.S. killers to perform? If past performance is any indication, the answer may be abject failure.

INTELLIGENCE HISTORIAN Jeffrey T. Richelson is the author of a new book on the CIA’s technical wizardry, including clandestine equipment used in failed assassination attempts before the United States’ ban was instituted in 1975.

“In spite of all their efforts, they never succeeded in killing anyone,” said Richelson. “They were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”

Richelson says there is no record of any U.S. intelligence operation’s killing any leader targeted by the political leadership. Not even the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA’s World War II predecessor, succeeded — although its plans were not as ambitious as the CIA’s.

CIA officials had no comment when asked if the staff or any other agency unit would be involved in any assassination, deferring all questions to the . The site states: “Executive Order 12333 of 1981 explicitly prohibits the Central Intelligence Agency from engaging, either directly or indirectly, in assassinations. Internal safeguards and the congressional oversight process assure compliance.”

In his new book, “The Wizards of Langley,” and previous books, including “The U.S. Intelligence Community,” Richelson lays out failure after failure.

During the 1950’ and ’60s, he has documented failures in Cuba — where Fidel Castro just celebrated his 75th birthday in spite of multiple attempts on his life; the Dominican Republic, Iraq, Congo, and Guatemala. During World War II, there were plans to kill German nuclear scientist Werner Heisenberg.

In Castro’s case, the CIA either used or planned to use shellfish toxin administered by a pin, bacterial material in liquid form, bacterial treatment of a cigar, a handkerchief treated with bacteria and even a wet suit coated with a toxic substance given to the Cuban president by a Cuban lawyer working for the agency.

InsertArt(1357413)Richelson says where the CIA has had some success is in helping factions within the target’s own country overthrow the leader, which sometimes results in the leader’s death, either in combat or by execution. Those examples include Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam and, indirectly, Salvador Allende of Chile.

The closest analogy to an assassination of a terrorist chieftain like Osama bin Laden, says Richelson, might be the 1965 assassination of Che Guevara, the Castro acolyte turned international guerilla. Guevara was tracked down by Bolivian troops with significant help from the CIA, who in turn got help from some Guevara supporters.

But, while there is a $5 million reward on bin Laden’s head and President Bush has said he is wanted “dead or alive,” bin Laden’s troops are viewed as extremely loyal, say U.S. officials.

Richelson says the most likely killing teams would be U.S. special operations forces, such as the Army’s Delta Force or the U.S. Navy Seals, rather than CIA operatives. “They have shooters,” explained Richelson. “And you would need shooters.”

However, there would almost certainly be some overlap since Delta Force and Seal personnel have been recruited by the CIA’s Special Activities Staff, also known as the American SAS — as differentiated from the British SAS, that country’s elite commando unit.

Richelson also said the U.S. government could form new units for assassination missions as well.

Senior U.S. officials say the president can modify, reinterpret or simply nullify the presidential executive order barring assassinations at any time. One senior intelligence official said it can be done without informing the public. Richelson disagreed, saying that it would be difficult legally to keep an executive order on the books as U.S. policy while secretly giving government agents contradictory guidance.

That could be done, he said, and then replaced with a secret presidential decision directive laying out goals and limits, “or the president could simply issue a new executive order on intelligence activities without the assassination prohibition.”

One US official noted that while the CIA has not engaged in assassinations for decades, it does train its “operators” — its human spies — in military skills. All recruits in the agency’s 5,000-person spy shop, the Directorate of Operations, are given a training and orientation course in military skills.

The same official said, however, that there are operators “in certain branches who are more militaristic ... who can slit your throat in 12 different ways and would be only too willing to do so.” Most of the training takes place at Camp Peary, an Army camp near Williamsburg, Va., that serves as the CIA’s Special Training Center, and Harvey Point, N.C.

Why does the CIA do such training if it hasn’t been engaged in assassination?

“Self-defense,” said one official.

Among the operations the CIA special activities teams engage in are sabotage, personnel and material recovery, kidnapping, bomb damage assessment, counterterrorist operations and hostage rescues overseas.

Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News.