CIA leads calls for repeal of ban on state-sanctioned assassinations

Intelligence Services
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The Independent US

The Central Intelligence Agency admitted yesterday that people with unsavoury backgrounds would be candidates for recruitment as pressure increased for the CIA to return to the assassination policy jettisoned more than two decades ago.

A CIA spokesman, Bill Harlow, said: "The CIA has never turned down a field request to recruit an asset in a terrorist organisation. Furthermore, the CIA does not avoid contact with individuals, regardless of their past, who may have information about terrorist activities."

Senior figures from President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney down (among them, Mr Bush's father and former President, George Bush, who is also a former director of the CIA) have complained that the agency's hands have been tied by restrictions imposed in the 1970s, fuelled by popular revulsion of its excesses under President Nixon. Among them are the ban on assassinations signed by President Ford in 1976, and subsequent expanding orders from Presidents Carter and Reagan.

The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act placed strict limits on the operations of the country's main electronic eavesdropping agency, the National Security Agency, within the US. All that, however, is now changing. Dennis Hastert, the Speaker, said yesterday: "We've got to give the President the power and the money to smoke these people out of the shadows." But any easing of restrictions will be opposed by civil rights groups.

The assassination ban is a presidential executive order, meaning that Mr Bush can reverse it without going through Congress, and thus enable the CIA to go after Osama bin Laden with the full authority to kill him or any other political figure held to have organised or sponsored terrorist attacks. Most of the other limits on CIA and FBI powers have been passed by Congress, meaning they can only be amended by new legislation. This is why the Justice Department, which is responsible for the FBI, has sent a package of proposals to Capitol Hill that would widen its powers to carry out wiretaps and detain foreigners.

But some experts say there is little evidence that the curbs were behind its failure to detect the plot in advance. "The FBI already has tremendous powers," said David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown Univers- ity here. The root problem is acknowledged to be a shortage of human intelligence, as opposed to the electronic variety on which the US spends billions.

Nor is the CIA barred by law from enlisting and paying unsavoury informants, who may well be terrorists themselves; such recruitment on the field merely has to be approved at a higher level back in Washington, and have a strong likelihood that the move will produce valuable results.

The real problem, many analysts say, is a tendency to "self-censorship" by the agency, after the controversy over its past operations, compounded by a plummeting of morale after the debacle of the Soviet super-mole Aldrich Ames, who was unmasked in 1994.

Now the CIA is the target of the finger-pointing. Within hours of the attacks, senior Republicans especially were complaining of an intelligence failure, and some are calling for the head of George Tenet, its director. Mr Tenet had been praised widely for quietly rebuilding the agency, but three major television networks have had to cancel flattering dramas on the agency. He seems safe, for now at least, after an explicit expression of support from the Vice-President Cheney.

For the FBI, no less discredited than the CIA by the inability to provide warning of the attacks, the aftermath brings a chance of redemption. Until last week, under its new director Robert Mueller, the bureau was struggling to recover after its own espionage scandal, the uncovering of another Soviet and Russian mole, Robert Hanssen, at the heart of its counter-intelligence operations. Now, with 7,000 agents on the case, it has the chance to show that it can wrap up the terrorist cells that officials warn may still exist here, and help unravel the networks abroad.