WASHINGTON -- In an earlier time, when the Cold War was hot, the U.S. government tried everything from mob hits to lethal pills to get Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader once bragged of surviving dozens of plots, even one involving "a mask that produces a fungus."
In those fearful times, the government also shipped poison to the Congo intended for independence leader Patrice Lumumba and supplied pistols and carbines to dissidents who shot Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, congressional investigators concluded.
The legacy of those and other abuses is a government ban on assassinations, first issued by President Ford a quarter-century ago and now being re-examined in light of the terrorist attacks that the government believes were engineered by Osama bin Laden.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, asked this week whether the order inhibits the government from targeting terrorists, said, "There is no question that ban does have effects. It restricts certain things that government can and cannot do."
In a CBS-New York Times poll after the attacks, 65 percent of Americans said federal policy should be changed "so the U.S. government can assassinate people in foreign countries who commit terrorist acts."
"People are urgently looking for things to fix," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.
At issue is one sentence of Executive Order 12333 of 1981, an update of Ford's 1976 order that was issued by President Reagan. It states: "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination."
That sentence, seemingly straightforward, is subject to varying interpretations.
In the past 20 years, America has bombed Saddam Hussein's palaces in Iraq, struck at Moammar Gadhafi's tents in Libya and fired cruise missiles into a high-level meeting of Osama bin Laden's organization in Afghanistan that may have included him.
In each case, government officials said the assassination ban had not been violated.
In the case of bin Laden, former President Clinton told NBC this week that he had "made it clear that we should take all necessary action to try to apprehend him and get him. ... Unfortunately, we missed him, apparently not by very long." Furthermore, Clinton said the assassination ban doesn't apply to terrorists, only to heads of state.
Duane Clarridge, who worked in Reagan's CIA, recalled that when the Libyan bombing targets were drawn up in 1986, "there was certainly no discussion -- or anyone making any smart or ad-lib remarks about hitting Gadhafi's command center -- that we might get him." But Clarridge added: "Did we think that was a possibility? I'm sure that we all did." Instead, Gadhafi's infant daughter was killed.
There is ongoing debate about whether the assassination ban would preclude a government-sponsored hit on bin Laden.
"I don't see that it crosses the threshold with respect to assassination," former CIA Director Robert Gates said in an interview. "I make a distinction between military operations and the CIA going out and targeting someone for assassination. In military operations people usually get killed."
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