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Andrew Cockburn: How Assassination Sold Drugs and Promoted Terrorism

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

No one can claim that plotting assassination is new to Washington or that, in the past, American leaders and the CIA didn't aim high: the Congo's Patrice Lumumba, Cuba's Fidel Castro, the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo. The difference was that, in those days, the idea of assassinating a foreign leader, or anyone abroad, had a certain element of the taboo attached to it. Whatever they knew, presidents preferred not to be officially involved. The phrase of the era was "plausible deniability." Top officials, including presidents, might approve assassination plots, but they didn't brag about them.

Even in the CIA, there was a certain reticence about embracing the act. As Tim Weiner writes in his classic history of the Agency, Legacy of Ashes, "On December 11, 1959, having reached [the conclusion that his movement was communist], Richard Bissell sent Allen Dulles a memo suggesting that 'thorough consideration be given to the elimination of Fidel Castro.'" Bissell was the Agency's deputy director of plans and Dulles its director. Although it was an internal memo and "elimination" was already a euphemism, writes Weiner, "Dulles penciled in a crucial correction to the proposal. He struck out elimination, a word tinged with more than a hint of murder. He substituted removal from Cuba -- and gave the go-ahead." And yes, "removal from Cuba" turned out to mean an almost endless string of convoluted, failed plots to murder Castro -- via the Mafia, poison, even exploding cigars or sea shells. It was, in the end, a performance worthy not of James Bond, but of the Three Stooges.

Jump four decades into a new century and assassination has come out of the closet. It's something presidents are proud of. Barack Obama's aides considered the news that the White House had a "kill list" a point of pride well worth leaking to the press. Think of it as plausible undeniability in twenty-first-century Washington. Key figures in the U.S. government now openly, publicly, discuss what the exact limits (and legal authority) might be for the assassination of American citizens and others abroad, and these arguments, even when they take place inside a government known for its fetishistic love of secrecy, soon become front-page news and no one even flinches.

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If you need a reason for all this, blame it at least in part on the sexiness of technology. The drone (or its equivalent) first arrived in American multiplexes as a baleful shadow of a horrific future, but when it finally made it into the light of day in our actual world, it turned out to have the glow and glamour of a new Apple product. Think: an iPhone armed with Hellfire missiles. Assassination was no longer a shameful act for the shadows, something from which presidents had to cringe. It was cool. And campaigns to assassinate-by-drone on a large scale, while covert, were not, in the old-fashioned sense, secret, not when the drone was a sentinel keeping Americans safe on a terror planet.

While quite capable of knocking off enemy figures -- only recently, for instance, such a drone took out a key religious leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- the killer drone turned out not to work at all as promised when it came to staunching terrorism or terror organizations. In addition, thanks to the recent killing of two hostages, an American and an Italian, in an al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan, its unremitting "collateral damage" from so-called signature strikes, previously largely ignored here, has suddenly made the news in a big way. In these years, the drone has, in fact, proven a terror promoter. A new book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, by Andrew Cockburn, the Washington editor of Harper's Magazine, lays out the rise of our latest technology of death in a way no one else has and in the process makes that point stunningly. Kill Chain is, to my mind, an instant classic if you want to understand the new American century (such as it is). Today, in an original essay based on his book , Cockburn takes us back to the drug wars of the 1990s, opening a window on just why the drone is the modern age's blowback weapon, par excellence. Tom

The Kingpin Strategy
Assassination as Policy in Washington and How It Failed, 1990-2015
By Andrew Cockburn

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As the war on terror nears its 14th anniversary -- a war we seem to be losing, given jihadist advances in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen -- the U.S. sticks stolidly to its strategy of "high-value targeting," our preferred euphemism for assassination. Secretary of State John Kerry has proudly cited the elimination of "fifty percent" of the Islamic State's "top commanders" as a recent indication of progress. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself, "Caliph" of the Islamic State, was reportedly seriously wounded in a March airstrike and thereby removed from day-to-day control of the organization. In January, as the White House belatedly admitted, a strike targeting al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan also managed to kill an American, Warren Weinstein, and his fellow hostage, Giovanni Lo Porto.

More recently in Yemen, even as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took control of a key airport, an American drone strike killed Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, allegedly an important figure in the group's hierarchy. Meanwhile, the Saudi news channel al-Arabiya has featured a deck of cards bearing pictures of that country's principal enemies in Yemen in emulation of the infamous cards issued by the U.S. military prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an aid to targeting its leaders. (Saddam Hussein was the ace of spades.)

Whatever the euphemism -- the Israelis prefer to call it "focused prevention" -- assassination has clearly been Washington's favored strategy in the twenty-first century. Methods of implementation, including drones, cruise missiles, and Special Operations forces hunter-killer teams, may vary, but the core notion that the path to success lies in directly attacking and taking out your enemy's leadership has become deeply embedded. As then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in 2010, "We believe that the use of intelligence-driven, precision-targeted operations against high-value insurgents and their networks is a key component" of U.S. strategy.

Analyses of this policy often refer, correctly, to the blood-drenched precedent of the CIA's Vietnam-era Phoenix Program -- at least 20,000 "neutralized." But there was a more recent and far more direct, if less noted, source of inspiration for the contemporary American program of murder in the Greater Middle East and Africa, the "kingpin strategy" of Washington's drug wars of the 1990s. As a former senior White House counterterrorism official confirmed to me in a 2013 interview, "The idea had its origins in the drug war. So that precedent was already in the system as a shaper of our thinking. We had a high degree of confidence in the utility of targeted killing. There was a strong sense that this was a tool to be used."

Had that official known a little more about just how this feature of the drug wars actually played out, he might have had less confidence in the utility of his chosen instrument. In fact, the strangest part of the story is that a strategy that failed utterly back then, achieving the very opposite of its intended goal, would later be applied full scale to the war on terror -- with exactly the same results.

The Kingpin Strategy Arrives

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At the beginning of the 1990s, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was the poor stepsister of federal law enforcement agencies. Called into being by President Richard Nixon two decades earlier, it had languished in the shadow of more powerful siblings, notably the FBI. But the future offered hope. President George H.W. Bush had only recently re-launched the war on drugs first proclaimed by Nixon, and there were rich budgetary pickings in prospect. Furthermore, in contrast to the shadowy drug trafficking groups of Nixon's day, it was now possible to put a face, or faces, on the enemy. The Colombian cocaine cartels were already infamous, their power and ruthless efficiency well covered in the media.

For Robert Bonner, a former prosecutor and federal judge appointed to head the DEA in 1990, the opportunity couldn't have been clearer. Although Nixon had nurtured fantasies of deploying his fledgling anti-drug force to assassinate traffickers, even soliciting anti-Castro Cuban leaders to provide the necessary killers, Bonner had something more systematic in mind. He called it a "kingpin strategy," whose aim would be the elimination either by death or capture of the "kingpins" dominating those cartels.

Implicit in the concept was the assumption that the United States faced a hierarchically structured threat that could be defeated by removing key leadership components. In this, Bonner echoed a traditional U.S. Air Force doctrine: that any enemy system must contain "critical nodes," the destruction of which would lead to the enemy's collapse.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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