It’s a classic ethical question: If you had the opportunity, would you have killed Adolf Hitler in 1939? On one hand, murder is wrong. But on the other, if you had killed Hitler, you might have saved millions of lives.
This hypothetical dilemma became real with the recent revelations that former Vice President Dick Cheney directed the CIA to create a secret squad of assassins who would travel the world, presumably, to assassinate al-Qaida leaders and operatives. Clearly, the former vice president saw, and continues to see, the Sept. 11 attacks as analogous to the Pearl Harbor attack that led to the United States entering World War II. He believes the U.S. is locked in a worldwide, to-the-death struggle with an extreme version of Islam. Most Americans no longer see the conflict in such stark and dramatic terms. In fact, in a CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll in June on national priorities, just 5 percent identified terrorism as the most important issue facing the country.
Setting aside Mr. Cheney’s perversely dark vision of the world for a moment, there are cogent arguments in support of using assassins to further political ends. Throughout history, men have relied on odd mixes of charisma, brutality and terror, manipulation, populism and paternalism to rule as despots. If some of those men — who may have been clinically insane — were suddenly dead, the entire character of their nations would have changed.
And if the Cheney strike team would have targeted only leaders and operatives of organizations, and not nations, if might have been more effective and less disruptive to world politics.
But history also shows that more often than not, such forays into this amoral realm, quietly killing agents of foreign powers or deposing dictators with behind-the-scenes forces, are not effective. Among the revelations that came out of Watergate, Congress learned that the CIA had strayed into rogue territory, attempting to assassinate Cuba’s Fidel Castro and other world leaders. A committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church led to President Ford signing an executive order forbidding the CIA from engaging in assassinations. Interestingly, Donald Rumsfeld, then director Mr. Ford’s transition to the White House, advised against revealing too much about the CIA to Congress.
Covert operations probably have a place in the defense arsenal. But the parameters in which they are undertaken must be cleared with congressional leaders. Without such oversight, the executive branch begins to resemble the foreign dictators the U.S. would like to topple.
And back to the Hitler question: There were several failed plots to kill Hitler, beginning in the late 1930s and continuing until late in the war. A recent movie, “Valkyrie,” accurately portrayed the last dramatic plot against the Fuhrer. Yet had it been successful, historians say, Heinrich Himmler and others would have seized power, and policies would have remained the same.