The writer teaches history and education at New York University.
I taught a course last month in the United Arab Emirates, which isn’t a democracy. But according to an Emirati guy I met there, the United States isn’t much of a democracy, either.
“Anyone you don’t like, you just assassinate him with a drone,” he told me. “Shoot first, ask questions later.”
But now lots of people are asking questions about U.S. drone strikes, especially after the recent confirmation hearings for John O. Brennan. Nominated by President Barack Obama to direct the Central Intelligence Agency, Brennan defended the CIA’s targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere as essential to national security.
Maybe they are. But they’re also exacting an enormous cost to America’s reputation in the Middle East and around the world, where critics describe them with a different term: assassination.
“Drone strike” sounds like a science-fiction movie, while “targeted killing” has the bland, anodyne tone of all bureaucratic jargon. But assassination? That’s murder.
And it has been illegal under U.S. law since the mid-1970s, when congressional hearings revealed CIA plots to kill Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and other world leaders.
In March 1961 the CIA gave poison pills and thousands of dollars to a Mafia contact within Cuba, who tried to smuggle the pills into Castro’s ice cream cone. The unused pills were later found in an icebox, frozen to the coils.
The following month, at the Bay of Pigs, Castro’s forces routed a CIA-trained army of Cuban exiles who were trying to overthrow him. Outraged and embarrassed, President John F. Kennedy briefly considered disbanding the CIA. Instead, he placed the agency under the watch of his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
That November, the Kennedys established a new CIA cell to eliminate Fidel Castro. “Let’s get the hell on with it,” Bobby Kennedy told CIA officials in January 1962. “The president wants some action, right now.”
A few weeks later the agency hired an American mobster, John Rosselli, who was given a new batch of pills to poison Castro. When Bobby Kennedy found out about the Rosselli plot, an agency official reported, he was “mad as hell” — not about the effort to kill Castro but about the Mafia’s involvement in it.
Rosselli enlisted another mob figure, who thought his girlfriend was having an affair with comedian Dan Rowan (who later starred on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”). Although the plot to kill Castro came to naught, a CIA-hired technician was arrested trying to bug Rowan’s hotel room.
Most of these cloak-and-dagger hijinks came to light in 1975, when Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, convened hearings about the CIA. But the Church committee could not determine if America’s presidents were aware of plans to kill Castro or other foreign leaders, including Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba.
“The presidents should have known about the plots,” the committee concluded. “The future of democracy rests upon such accountability.”
Fast-forward to today’s drone strikes, which are reportedly approved beforehand by President Obama. But they’re also shrouded in secrecy, so it’s hard to hold Obama — or anyone else — accountable for them.
Indeed, at the Brennan confirmation hearings, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee noted that they still hadn’t received a full list of countries where the CIA had carried out strikes.
But we do know that some of the strikes have missed their mark, with much more dire consequences than the botched assassination plots of the 1960s. A few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, for example, a drone reportedly killed a tall man in robes thought to be Osama bin Laden.
But he turned out to be an innocent Afghani villager, out to gather scrap metal.
By that time George W. Bush had classified terrorism as an act of war, which freed the White House from the bans on foreign assassination that were put in place after the Church committee’s revelations. And Obama has ratcheted up the Bush policy, authorizing as many CIA aerial strikes in his first 9½ months in office as Bush did in his final three years.
To be sure, some of these strikes have eliminated terrorists plotting real harm to Americans. But they’ve also created untold animosity against us, as the Church committee predicted nearly four decades ago. “Assassination violates moral precepts fundamental to our way of life,” the committee concluded. “The damage to American foreign policy, to the good name and reputation of the United States abroad ... is incalculable.”
That brings me back to my challenger in the UAE, who questioned whether we are acting in accord with our principles. Can we provide a good answer to him?
To paraphrase Frank Church’s committee, the future of our democracy might rest upon it.