as the white house issues dark warnings of a war on terrorism that will remain largely out of view and may go on for years, it is also quietly defining a new brand of conflict with ugly new rules. Conventional bombing and military assaults, U.S. officials promise, won't be enough to respond to an enemy that is a nebulous assortment of people and groups scattered in dozens of countries, including in North America.
They're hinting at a revival of the dirty deeds of the past -- covert-action coups d'état and assassinations that caused intelligence scandals in the U.S. in the 70s and 80s. But recycling CIA sins poses a major dilemma for Canadians, who are likely to wonder if U.S. operatives will suddenly start planting car bombs or gunning down suspected terrorists on the streets of Toronto. And it also worries many experienced intelligence experts who argue that the quick kill will never make the world safer.***
It took just a few days after September 11 for U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell to report that a 25-year ban on assassinations was "under review." The ban dates to President Gerald Ford's executive order 11905, signed in 1976, which prohibits U.S. federal employees from engaging in "political assassinations" targeting foreign government officials.Ford was reacting to revelations that the CIA tried to assassinate Cuban president Fidel Castro and Chilean president Salvador Allende. The CIA had also been rocked by disclosures about its Phoenix program during the Vietnam War, which left an estimated 20,000 suspected Communists dead in a no-holds-barred assassination campaign.
Ford's order is generally understood to apply only to the CIA, and not to U.S. special-forces soldiers. Experts say U.S. military forces have already been given classified orders authorizing lethal force in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his network. Indeed, last weekend U.S. officials revealed that President Bush had personally authorized the killing of Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in a bombing raid.
This pressure for targeted killings is likely to increase, says Michael Richardson, a former counterterrorism official at Canada's foreign affairs department. "The problem with (capturing suspects) is you need evidence to convict them in a court of law. It's much tidier all around if you just do away with them. The legal system requires proof beyond reasonable doubt. We're not going to get that. Intelligence is not ever without reasonable doubt."
There are other reasons offered for the quick hit. George Friedman, an influential U.S. intelligence expert, says America can't afford to wage a conventional war against every country that may have harboured or helped bin Laden's group, a list that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, not to mention Afghanistan and America's ally Pakistan.
Fighting even a few of these countries "is simply not feasible militarily," says Friedman. Instead, he advocates what he calls the Israeli model -- sending elite undercover soldiers to murder suspected terrorists around the world.
"You're in an area where all moral certitudes evaporate," says Friedman, who founded and chairs Stratfor Inc., a Texas-based intelligence firm that advises the U.S. government and business.
But to many military experts, the Israeli model is actually proof that a campaign of assassinations is the wrong solution. "The Israelis have been assassinating people for years, and it doesn't seem to have worked as a deterrent. It generally inflames groups," says Joel Sokolsky, dean of arts at Canada's Royal Military College.
Sokolsky says the assassination ban debate is, in fact, an attempt to deflect blame from U.S. intelligence agencies for their failure to prevent the terrorist attacks. Their argument is that restraints imposed by civilians prevented them from doing their job.
"Lifting the ban on assassination seems to be the wrong message to send while trying to rally a global coalition against terrorism," he says.
"What if Russia went to Chechnya and started assassinating people? Do we want Spain to go and assassinate Basque people? Do we want to set that precedent?" he asks.
Offing suspects is "a bad idea," argues Gregory Treverton, a former vice-chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, where he oversaw the preparation of presidential briefings. "That's the worst kind of thing we could do. If we start down that line, who knows where it will end?"
Jon Concheff, a 21-year veteran of the U.S. special forces, says it would be better to capture suspects, question them about their activities so future attacks can be prevented and put them on trial. "Yeah, I'd like to eliminate some of these yo-yos and not spend money putting them on trial. (But) as a democratic society, is state-sanctioned murder appropriate? Military people are not enthusiastic about this."
In the rush for revenge, says 10-year CIA veteran Robert Steele, who also served 11 years in the U.S. Marine Corps intelligence, the U.S. has neglected to think about how its own foreign policy has contributed to the crisis: "I am alarmed by the fact that President Bush has militarized this conflict and has absolutely no idea how to deal with terrorism overseas. Lifting the ban on assassinations is stupid -- insane."
Not to mention highly illegal, according to Anthony D'Amato, an international law expert at Chicago's Northwestern University. "The laws of war don't explicitly forbid assassination, (but) there is an implicit ban based on the duty to take prisoners. You can shoot an enemy soldier in combat, but if you are in a position to arrest him and take him prisoner -- that is, without risk (of) your own bodily injury -- you cannot shoot him. Assassination of individuals in war is a war crime."
And if this illegality takes place on Canuck soil? Does Canada's current military compact with the U.S. mean a licence to kill for operatives from south of the border?
Not so, say our federal police. "Murder would not be permitted anywhere in our jurisdiction," says RCMP spokesperson corporal Kevin Fahey. "We would take action against anyone who committed a crime in Canada."