ONE would think that when the United States, as a civilized country, decides not to use assassination as an instrument of its foreign policy it could forthrightly say so and that would be the end of it. But no. In the murky world of intelligence, words rarely mean exactly what the dictionary says they do. The current problem arose in the aftermath of the unsuccessful coup in Panama in October. All the American agencies with any responsibilities in Panama made an unseemly rush to absolve themselves. (It never occurred to any of them to take credit for keeping the US out.) The Central Intelligence Agency in particular felt inhibited by ``ambiguities'' in the anti-assassination policy.
This policy was explicitly stated in an executive order issued by President Ford in 1976 - a time, be it noted, when the director of the CIA was George Bush. Ford's executive order was reaffirmed by President Carter in 1978 and by President Reagan in 1981.
Now in 1989 the administration of President George Bush is so obsessed with driving Panamanian General Manuel Antonio Noriega from power that the Justice Department has reinterpreted the Ford-Carter-Reagan orders. It is curious that President Bush should feel this need. It is presidents who issue executive orders and therefore presidents can change them without reference to the Justice Department, Congress, or anybody else. Bush apparently wanted to avoid the responsibility.
What he got was a ruling from Justice that although the CIA cannot engage in assassination, and although it cannot cooperate with foreign groups deliberately engaging in assassination, it can cooperate with foreign groups engaging in activities in which assassinations might occur - as by-products, so to speak.
This hair-splitting came in connection with a covert action plan, leaked, to overthrow Noriega. An anonymous administration official said that there will be no deals permitting Noriega either to retire in Panama or to take refuge in a third country. He must be brought to the United States to stand trial on drug charges. Where does the administration think this policy will lead? It will not permit Noriega a way out. Short of being kidnapped, Noriega cannot be expected to go to the US. It looks like a situation created to lead to a violent denouement. But US policy says such violence is prohibited unless it is incidental. How can it be incidental if the situation creating it is deliberate?
There is a much larger issue involved here than the fate of Noriega or even US relations with Panama. It is how to assert and exercise political control of secret activities. One reason control is so difficult is the propensity of the intelligence community to communicate in circumlocutions, or codewords, or even in nonverbal ways - a wink, a cough, a smile or frown.
The community hates to leave a record - a paper trail of memos, orders, and decisions by which its actions can be traced, or responsibility fixed. The justification for this is that it provides the government and the president with plausible deniability. If an operation is exposed, the president can innocently say he did not know about it and people will believe him. So it is hoped.
Speaking of the murder of the Jesuit priests in El Salvador, President Bush said the other day that he ``absolutely'' believed Salvadoran president Cristiani's denial that his government was involved. Cristiani, said Bush, ``knew nothing about it.'' The fact that Cristiani did not know about it has no bearing on whether Cristiani's government was involved. If Ronald Reagan is to be believed, he knew nothing about the Iran-contra affair, but the government which he headed was certainly involved in it.
The vagueness of directives from high officials admits of whatever interpretation an underling chooses - sometimes what the official had in mind, sometimes not. In the 12th century, King Henry II cried in exasperation, ``Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?'' And four of his knights hacked Thomas Becket to death in Canterbury Cathedral. In the 20th century, John and Robert Kennedy so frequently expressed their frustration with Castro that the CIA was ready to use the mafia to oust Castro.
We hear a great deal out of the White House about upholding values. Just saying no to assassination would be a place to start.