A Brief History of (failed?) CIA Assassination Plots 


The latest little touch of evil left over from Dick Cheney’s shadow administration was an alleged post-9/11 plan to rollback President Ford’s 1976 Executive Order prohibiting assassination (which President Reagan amended in 1981 to specifically include terrorists). Basically, Cheney wanted to be able to go kill foreign leaders deemed "bad guys."

According to a recent New York Times story, the CIA “developed plans to dispatch small [paramilitary] teams overseas to kill senior Al-Qaeda officials.” Which in theory would have cut down on civilian casualties and offered an alternative to drone aircraft strikes or “seizing suspects overseas and imprisoning them in secret CIA jails.”

Cheney never went forward with the revival and some say his plans were only revealed to deflect attention from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s squabble with the CIA over water-boarding briefings; but to think for one thrilling moment that Central Intelligence could have been restored to its former glory: the cloak and dagger days of exploding seashells and poisoned briefcase handles…

Why, that’s almost worth trampling the constitution for.

But even though we've been denied the thrill of murdering foreign leaders, we thought it an appropriate moment to look back at some of our better attempts to do just that.

The classic era of Central Intelligence — which, by the way, is the proper, professional, way to refer to the agency — began after WWII and continued until the mid-70s, when Congress spoiled the fun, investigating and insisting on oversight. And by then the best intelligence was coming from satellites and signal intercepts anyway. By 1989, they were so hobbled they failed to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But in the old days the CIA was completely unrestrained. They were Ivy League cowboys who toppled governments, forged banknotes, consorted with the underworld and spent billions on urine detecting sensors in the Vietnamese jungle — and assassinated with relative impunity.

In 1975 the [Congressional] Church Committee, whose work eventually put the kibosh on the CIA-sponsored assassination, identified five alleged peacetime assassination plots among the CIA’s nefarious deeds (which also included intercepting the mail of US citizens, illegal experimentation and other domestic espionage atrocities). The targets: Fidel Castro, Rafael Trujillo, Rene Schneider, Patrice Lumumba and Ngo Dinh Diem; the leaders of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Congo and South Vietnam, respectively.

To date, the Central Intelligence Agency has never actually admitted assassinating anyone. But a glance at a 1954 “Study of Assassination” pried loose from the Central Intelligence Agency archives and Church Committee’s “Interim Report: Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders” strongly suggests they have at least had a hand in a few of them.

The Study, a how-to guide to assassination, was included as part of the CIA training manuals produced for Operation PB Success, an attempt to overthrow the Guatemalan government. It’s full of deliciously evil morsels. A warning against gut jabs, cautions that “abdominal wounds were once nearly always mortal, but modern medical treatment has made this no longer true.” (Sever the spine near the cervical region with a light hatchet blow instead, for “absolute reliability.”) Another more sinister nugget advises that: “no assassination instructions should ever be written or recorded.”

The Study also contains a reason why the CIA never owned up to assassinating anyone. “It should be assumed that [an assassination] will never be ordered or authorized by any U.S. Headquarters, though the latter may in rare instances agree to its execution by members of an associated foreign service.” The CIA subcontracts its killers, in other words. The reason why? “This reticence is partly due to the necessity for committing communications to paper.”

click to enlarge Fidel Castro

The failed assassination of Fidel Castro was among the most venomous of the Church Committee’s discoveries.

Between 1960 and 1965, particularly after the humiliating failure of the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, the assassination of Fidel Castro inspired incredible creativity from the agency, including (according to a sheaf of documents Castro handed over to Sen. George McGovern in 1975) an attempt that took place on November 22, 1963 — the very day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Proven CIA plots included lacing Castro’s recording studio with hallucinogens, placing radioactive thallium salts in his shoes to depilate Castro’s famous beard, poisoning cigars with botulism toxin (a.k.a the active ingredient in Botox), exploding sea shells, and other more conventional strategies. Most worrying of all was the subcontracting of Mafia (who had owned casinos in Havana before the Cuban revolution) to do the deed. Castro remained in power until 2008 when he handed control to his younger brother Raul.

Poison was also the weapon of choice for killing Patrice Lumumba, the rabble-rousing anti-colonial leader of the Belgian Congo (now: Zaire), with CIA operatives procuring “lethal biological materials” (they considered rabbit fever, undulant fever, anthrax, sleeping sickness, small pox and TB) from Fort Detrick, Maryland and an accessory kit of “hypodermic needles, rubber gloves and gauze masks” that were “packaged in such a way that they could “pass for something else” to do the deed. Supposedly the stuff was disguised as toothpaste.

Though the Study cautioned against firearm assassinations (assassins tend to under-estimate the lethality and accuracy of guns) they were a popular choice.

In 1961, Lumumba was finally seized on a commercial airliner, and later killed by a rival government group who may or may not have been facilitated by the Belgian and American governments. The CIA also admitted to “extensive agency involvement with the plotters” who gunned down Dominican Republic Dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961, but given the man’s brutally repressive regime (captured in Junot Diaz’ Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) it was slightly more defensible from a human rights standpoint.

The CIA denied any involvement in the military coup that killed (quasi-) democratically elected South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, on the orders of President Kennedy they failed to intervene (a move Viet Cong leader Ho Chin Mein described as ‘insane’ and exponentially increased resentment against the US-backed South Vietnamese government).

According to the Church Committee, in 1970 Gen. Rene Schneider was kidnapped (and accidentally killed) because he stood in the way of a coup, insisting on constitutional means to remove winning Marxist candidate Salvatore Allende from the Chilean election. Allende became President and was deposed in 1973, only to be replaced by Augusto Pinochet, one of the most repressive leaders in South American history.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government removed two categories of assault from its arsenal – chemical-biological weapons, and assassination. Though getting rid of these “tools” was partly humanitarian, assassination and chemical-biological weaponry are among the most horrifying and unpredictable of tactics. Getting rid of them was likely as much a tactical decision as it was humanitarian. And that is probably the real reason why Cheney didn’t bother reviving the practice.


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