WASHINGTON — The presidential ban on assassinations may or may not be formally rescinded. It is, in any event, being treated by the Bush administration as - pardon the expression - a dead letter.
The prohibition on government-sponsored assassinations goes back to the Ford administration. It came in the wake of revelations that, under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, the CIA had plotted the murder of eight foreign leaders, most notably Fidel Castro, but also including Sukarno of Indonesia, Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, and Leonidas Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.
In February 1976, President Ford signed Executive Order 12333, forbidding anyone employed by the United States government to "engage in or conspire to engage in assassination."
Successive presidents renewed the order, but some found ways of evading it while paying lip service to it.
The Reagan administration adopted an interpretation exempting death incidental to a military action. Ordering the bombing of Col. Muammar Qaddafi's compound in Libya in 1986, President Reagan said he wasn't trying to get one man, but added, "I don't think any of us would have shed any tears if that happened."
A similarly dry-eyed President George Bush ordered the bombing of the presidential palace in Baghdad in 1991, during the Gulf War, and said, "We're not in the position of targeting Saddam Hussein, but no one will weep for him when he is gone."
During the Clinton administration, another interpretation of the assassination ban made an exception for killing a foreign leader engaged in terrorism against America. President Clinton signed a secret order authorizing the use of lethal force against Osama bin Laden's "organization." That he might not survive was tacitly understood.
In 1991, during the Gulf War, I wrote in The Washington Post, "It is time to change Executive Order 12333 to spare us from presidential double-talk about designs on the lives of foreign foes."
That issue arises again. The Clinton order to go after Mr. bin Laden's organization is still in effect. The Bush administration is in the process of making its own search-and-destroy plans to fulfill the president's "dead or alive" order.
A 25-year-old executive order reflecting the reaction to mindless cold-war plotting against President Castro and other third-world leaders seems totally anachronistic after Sept.11.
It is time to rescind an assassination ban that has no more reason for existing.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.