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Regime change by assassin? It's not so easy

So Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, thinks the United States should assassinate Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president. Easier said than done.
Cuban President Fidel Castro and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez talk to media in Havana
Cuban President Fidel Castro, right,and his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez, speak to the media in Havana on Tuesday.Claudia Daut / Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

So Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, thinks the United States should assassinate Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president.

Let's see. What are our options? The 30-year-old Senate reports of the Church committee give us some options.

How about a vial of poison, as ordered up for a proposed U.S. assassination in 1960 of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Or perhaps supply some weaponry to a local hit squad, as Washington did for those who bumped off Dominican leader Rafael Trujillo.

And let us not overlook Fidel. Oh Fidel, that tough Castro case in Cuba. Through the 1960s, there were eight -- count 'em, eight -- separate U.S. plots to kill him. MOs included a mob hit, poisoned cigars, an exploding seashell and a skin diving suit contaminated with deadly fungi, not to mention various rifles and explosives in the hands of Castro-hating Cuban exiles.

Yet Castro remains with us -- which may prove the point that geopolitical hits are folly or, at least, never easy.

Chavez, wouldn't you know, was in Cuba yesterday, visiting Castro when the Robertson controversy broke. Robertson and some in the Bush administration believe Chavez is Castro's spawn. And Chavez has pumped himself into heroic status with frequent predictions that the United States wants him dead. Robertson, in a tirade against the oil-rich leader, said that Washington should give Chavez what he wants.

But seriously.

Radioactive course of action
It is rare that a public figure would publicly advocate such a radioactive course of action as assassination, which is why the collective eyebrow has been raised over Robertson's statements.

"We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability," Robertson said Monday on the Christian Broadcasting Network show "The 700 Club."

"We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with."

And in language that immediately induces deja vu, Robertson said that taking out Chavez would stop his country from being "a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism."

We asked Michael Scharf, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and a former State Department legal adviser, what he thought of this.

"Robertson is obviously no statesman," he wrote in an e-mail. "There is no way to legally justify such action against President Chavez."

And quickly, various Bush administration officials performed the ritual political distancing from a figure who, this incident notwithstanding, represents the president's Christian conservative flank.

Controversial history of assassination
No administration ever wants to be poised anywhere near a public discussion of assassination. The broad U.S. history of assassinations against foreign leaders is long, colorful and still controversial.

What we know comes, in the main, from investigations by a mid-1970s Senate select committee into a very busy era of hits or attempted hits that were either plotted by the United States or aided and supported by it. Five cases -- in Congo, the Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, Cuba and Chile -- were examined by that Senate committee, commonly known as the Church committee after its chairman, Idaho Democrat Frank Church.

The bitter fallout from some of those cases continues to shape national politics in those countries today.

Congo, for instance, has seen 45 years of dictatorship, war and misrule that may come to an end next year if elections go off there as planned -- quite a big if. It would be the first national election since Lumumba was voted in as prime minister in 1960, when the colony called Belgian Congo gained its independence.

Lumumba wouldn't last. The United States, the Belgians and various Congolese factions were after him in what became a race to a kill.

The CIA dispatched an agent with that infamous vial of poison, the Church committee reported. At around the same time, a Congolese military leader named Mobutu Sese Seko and others were hatching a plan to kidnap Lumumba and kill him, which they did. He was beaten to death. The CIA man with the poison dumped it into the Congo River.

In Chile, too, an old assassination still reverberates as that nation grapples with the legacy of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The CIA supported a plot to destabilize President Salvador Allende's government by kidnapping one of his generals. It was believed that Gen. Rene Schneider's removal would open the way for an anti-Allende coup. The CIA supplied weapons to a group of dissidents who would neutralize Schneider, though the Church committee said it was not with CIA weapons that Schneider was ultimately killed in 1970. Pinochet led a coup against Allende three years later -- a move the United States also encouraged, the Church committee said.

On Nov. 2, 1963, just three weeks before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem died in a coup. The U.S. supported the generals who plotted against him, on the theory that the Vietnam War was more winnable without Diem than with him. The rest, of course, is history.

When all these machinations came to light in the 1970s, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order prohibiting political assassination.

But in 1986, the United States bombed Libyan targets where Moammar Gaddafi, the country's ruler, was believed present. This came after a terror attack on a Berlin nightclub frequented by U.S. soldiers.

In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton authorized the CIA to find and kill Osama Bin Laden.

And the Iraq war began, you might recall, with a U.S. airstrike on a bunker where Saddam Hussein and his sons were believed to be hiding. It might have been a hit, though it was also the start of a war.