U.S. allowed assassination attempts for leaders like Castro

Part of the post-World War II tactics of the United States included supporting assassination attempts against foreign leaders with Fidel Castro leading the way:

In fact, Cuban intelligence estimated there were precisely 638 attempts on his life – many backed by the US.

The bearded leader is said to have survived exploding cigars, exploding seashells, a poisonous fountain pen and even a mafia-style execution…

“If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal,” he would later joke.

But, Castro wasn’t the only one. The Church Committee of the mid-1970s revealed a number of attempts on foreign leaders (from Wikipedia):

Among the matters investigated were attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, the Diem brothers of Vietnam, Gen. René Schneider of Chile and Director of Central Intelligence Allen Welsh Dulles‘s plan (approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower) to use the Sicilian Mafia to kill Fidel Castro of Cuba.

Under recommendations and pressure by this committee, President Gerald Ford issued Executive Order 11905 (ultimately replaced in 1981 by President Reagan‘s Executive Order 12333) to ban U.S. sanctioned assassinations of foreign leaders.

Together, the Church Committee’s reports have been said to constitute the most extensive review of intelligence activities ever made available to the public. Much of the contents were classified, but over 50,000 pages were declassified under the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.

Despite all the talk of the United States acting as the world’s policeman (and this presumes police act in the public’s best interest), the United States has a sordid past of foreign involvement. It is not just a recent thing. The drone strikes of today can be seen as descendants of these earlier activities. And the legality of it all is still questionable: we are not often officially at war with some of these other nations (at least there has not been an official declaration from Congress) though the activities are said to be against “enemy combatants.”

Argos hints at the negative foreign actions of the United States from the 1950s through the 1970s

I recently saw the movie Argo (95% fresh reviews at RottenTomatoes.com) which was quite well done for a movie for which you know the outcome. One part of the movie that intrigued me was an early timeline scene where the relations between the United States and Iran were described. The events of 1979 shouldn’t have been a complete surprise; the CIA had helped install the Shah through a coup in 1953 and the US supported the regime even through its abuses. This is the back story through which the events of the movie take place. (See the story of Iran-United States relations.)

However, the actions of the United States in Iran were not an isolated incident. Indeed, following its rise to superpower status after World War II, the United States was involved in a number of countries. Some of these actions are more well-known. A war in Korea which ended in a stalemate and reaching the brink of war with China. A war in Vietnam which became unpopular and the US didn’t reach the result for which it entered the war. The Bay of Pigs where the US hoped to depose Fidel Castro. But, there were plenty of actions that were not as well-known. Here are a few places to find out more about these actions:

1. The Church Committee was a Congressional committee that operated in 1975 and uncovered and reported on US foreign actions. The committee produced a number of reports that included information like this:

Among the matters investigated were attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, the Diem brothers of Vietnam, Gen. René Schneider of Chile and President John F. Kennedy’s plan to use the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro of Cuba.

2. Former CIA operative Philip Agee wrote a 1975 book titled Inside the Company: CIA Diary where he detailed what he knew about CIA actions to influence politics in Latin America. For his actions, Agee’s passport was revoked and he became a persona non grata in some countries friendly with the US. In 2007, Agee described why he came forward with what he knew:

“It was a time in the 70s when the worst imaginable horrors were going on in Latin America,” he says. “Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Guatemala, El Salvador – they were military dictatorships with death squads, all with the backing of the CIA and the US government. That was what motivated me to name all the names and work with journalists who were interested in knowing just who the CIA were in their countries.”

Watching Argo in light of this information may just change the interpretation of the final scenes. At first glance, these scenes can be viewed as yet another American success story: American ingenuity and hard work again fights off the forces of darkness. But, with the more complete back story, the final scene might appear more bittersweet.

Assassination, Gaddafi, and Bin Laden

Instapundit recently posted about how there has been general support for the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Being involved in assassinations is a tricky area for the United States, particularly since we were implicated in some nefarious activity back in the 1950s through the 1970s (see the Church Committee report of 1975). Here how this has played out in recent days:

1. The recent attack on Gaddafi was intended to kill the Libyan leader. This is not the first time the US has attempted this with the earlier efforts coming in a bombing attack in 1986. This would seem to fit the classic definition of assassination: the killing of a foreign leader when his actions against the United States were not part of a larger war.

2. The recent killing of Bin Laden is being called an assassination by some but doesn’t seem to be in the same category. Bin Laden was not a political leader and I’m sure he had been named something like an “enemy combatant” by the United States. Because he was killed as part of a war effort (the “war on terror”) and he wasn’t a politician, this isn’t really an assassination. The problem comes in here when the media talks about assassinations as any attack on a prominent person. Not all such attacks are assassinations.

In both of these cases, people have made the argument that killing “the head” of the organization (al Qaeda or Libya) would be better than fighting a more traditional war. Perhaps so – but such actions might be against international law (see a quick discussion of the ambiguities here). And whether the killing of one person actually gets rid of larger, structural problems is another matter (witness the case of Iraq and the death of Saddam Hussein).

I recently thought of an example that illustrates some of the problems with assassinations or “targeted killings”: imagine that a foreign leader called for the killing of President Obama because of US actions around the world. I imagine that we would be fairly outraged: how dare another country threaten our voted-in leader. But is this much different than NATO leaders openly discussing killing Gaddafi?

Quick Review: The Sixth Floor Museum

During a short trip to Dallas, I had a chance to visit The Sixth Floor Museum in the Texas Book Depository. This is, of course, the site from where Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy. A few thoughts about this intriguing museum:

1. There is a lot of interesting material about the event including photographs, videos, models, and artifacts. I have read multiple books on the subject and there were a number of features of that day that I had forgotten. It was a nice mix of media through which to explore that fateful day.

1a. One video featured the national TV news coverage in the days after the assassination. From what I saw, it looked like those few days were a quick foreshadowing of the 24/7 news we have today. After the shooting, the major news networks had live coverage for much of the next few days and NBC even captured the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby live on a Sunday.

2. It was hard not to feel a sense of sadness when hearing about the death of a President. This sadness was not just limited to the feelings of people at the time (and there was a 10-minute video showing the somber scenes in Washington D.C. as JFK’s body was led through the streets) but it was noticeable among those in the museum. There was a guestbook at the end of the museum and a number of people had signed it and expressed their condolences and emotions. I was not alive on that day but I could see why it was a momentous day for many Americans.

3. The museum had more than I expected about the possible conspiracies. I would be curious to hear how the museum decided to present these – they can’t really be ignored and this is why many people are interested in the event but many of the conspiracies have a limited basis in facts. One of the more interesting displays in the museum was one that showed the numerous governmental commissions that examined the issue between 1963 and 1980.

3a. One thought I had when standing next to the recreated corner where Oswald shot from was that it would have been a difficult shot to hit a person in a moving vehicle with trees in the way. There is some dispute about how good of a marksman Oswald was. I’d like to read more about how difficult of a shot this really was.

3b. One area where there was less information regarded the backstory of Lee Harvey Oswald. While they hinted at his convoluted story of defecting to the Soviet Union and then returning to the United States, there is a lot of other curious information they could have displayed.

4. The museum was quite positive about JFK’s legacy. Perhaps they are simply reflecting the positive way in many Americans view JFK (more info here).

5. I have mixed feelings about having a gift shop at the end of such an experience.

Overall, I imagine this would be an intriguing museum for many Americans and not just those interested in history or Presidents.