A damned Murder Inc.

by Alexander Cockburn

Some time in early or mid-1949, a CIA officer named Bill (his surname is blacked out in the file, which was surfaced by John Kelly in the early 1990s) asked an outside contractor for input on how to kill people. Requirements included the appearance of an accidental or purely fortuitous terminal experience suffered by the Agency’s victim. Bill’s friend — internal evidence suggests he was a doctor — offered practical advice: “Tetraethyl lead, as you know, could be dropped on the skin in very small quantities, producing no local lesion, and after a quick death, no specific evidence would be present.” Another possibility was “the exposure of the entire individual to X-ray.” “There are two other techniques,” Bill’s friend concluded bluffly, which “require no special equipment beside a strong arm and the will to do such a job. These would be either to smother the victim with a pillow or to strangle him with a wide piece of cloth, such as a bath towel.” As regular as congressmen being outed for adultery or taking cash bribes, every year or two the Central Intelligence Agency has go into damage-control mode to deal with embarrassing documents like the memo to Bill, and has to square up to the question — does it or did it ever have its in-house assassins, a Double O team? It just happened. In mid-July, the news headlines were suddenly full of allegations that in the wake of the 9/11/2001 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney had ordered the formation of a CIA kill squad and expressly ordered the agency not to disclose the program even to congressional overseers with top security clearances, as required by law. As soon as CIA officials disclosed the program to CIA director Leon Panetta, he ordered it to be halted. And regular as the congressmen taken in adultery seeking forgiveness from God and spouse, the CIA rolled out the familiar response that yes, such a program had been mooted, but there had been practical impediments. The CIA insisted it had never proposed a specific operation to the White House for approval. Before irrefutable evidence of its vast kidnapping and interrogation program post-2001 surfaced, the CIA similarly used to claim, year after year, that it had never been in the torture business either. Torture manuals drafted by the agency would surface — a 128-page secret how-to-torture guide produced by the CIA in July 1963 called “Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation”; another 1983 manual, enthusiastically used by CIA clients in the “contra” war against Central American leftist nationalists in President Reagan’s years — and the agency would deny, waffle and evade until the moment came simply to dismiss the torture charge as “an old story.” Infact, the agency took a practical interest in torture and assassinationfrom its earliest days, studying Nazi interrogation techniques avidlyand sheltering noted Nazi practitioners. What about targets ofassassination attempts by the CIA, acting on presidential orders? Wecould start with the bid on Chou En-lai’s life after the BandungConference in 1955; they blew up the plane scheduled to take him home,but fortunately — though not for the other passengers — he’d switchedflights. Then we could move on to the efforts, ultimately successful in1961, to kill the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, in which the CIA wasintimately involved, dispatching among others the late Dr. SidneyGottlieb, the agency’s in-house killer chemist, with a hypodermicloaded with poison. The Kennedy years saw deep US implicationin the murder of the Diem brothers in Vietnam and the first of manywell-attested efforts by the agency to assassinate Fidel Castro. It wasLyndon Johnson who famously said shortly after he took office in 1963,“We had been operating a damned Murder, Inc., in the Caribbean.”Reagan’s first year in office saw the inconvenient Omar Torrijos ofPanama downed in an air crash. Led by that man of darkness, WilliamCasey, in 1985, the CIA tried to kill the Lebanese Shiite leader SheikhMohammad Hussein Fadlallah by setting off a car bomb outside hismosque. He survived, though 80 others were blown to pieces. In his Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, BillBlum has a long and interesting list starting in 1949 with Kim Koo,Korean opposition leader, going on to efforts to kill Sukarno,president of Indonesia; Kim Il Sung, premier of North Korea; MohammedMossadegh; Claro M. Recto, the Philippines opposition leader;Jawaharlal Nehru; Gamal Abdul Nasser; Norodom Sihanouk; Jose Figueres;Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier; Gen. Rafael Trujillo; Charles de Gaulle;Salvador Allende; Michael Manley; Ayatollah Khomeini; the ninecomandantes of the Sandinista National Directorate; Mohamed FarahAidid, prominent clan leader of Somalia; Slobodan Milosevic…. Insum, assassination has always been an arm of US foreign policy, just asin periods of turbulence, as in the ’60s, it has always been an arm ofdomestic repression as well. One way to read the brouhaha of the pastfew days is as an effort at pre-emptive damage control by the CIA. TheCIA’s former counterterrorism chief of operations, Vincent Cannistraro,recently remarked that “there were things the agency was involved withafter 9/11 which were basically over the edge because of 9/11. Therewere some very unsavory things going on. Now they are a problem for theCIA.” Just because Vice President Dick Cheney may have been supervisinga Murder Inc., doesn’t mean that CIA officers who became hisoperational accomplices won’t be legally vulnerable. At the moment,President Obama is trying to keep the lid on stillsecret crimescommitted by US government agencies in the Global War on Terror in theBush years. The CIA is clearly positioning itself for furtherdisclosures. So is Dick Cheney.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. Copyright 2009