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 “The Kingpin Strategy,” 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.