WASHINGTON — The New York Times reports that the Bush administration has given the CIA a "hit list" of terrorist leaders. And Seymour Hersh reports in The New Yorker that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in internal Pentagon memos, has discussed the killing of selected individual terrorists. The US government seems to be back in the controversial business of assassination, or maybe it never left.
Still formally in effect is the executive order that President Ford signed in 1976, after Senate investigation had disclosed six attempts to murder Fidel Castro and plans in various stages for the killing of other left-wing leaders in the third world, including the Congo's Lumumba, Haiti's Duvalier, Indonesia's Sukarno, and the Dominican Republic's Trujillo.
The executive order said that no one working for the US "shall engage in or conspire to engage in assassination." But, over the years, the categoric ban has been diluted by "interpretations" that allowed for the killing of a foreign leader as the unintended consequence of a military action or if the leader was engaged in terrorism against American interests. So President Reagan ordered the bombing of Muammar Qaddafi's compound in Libya in 1986, and said he would have shed no tear if Mr. Qaddafi had been killed. And President Bush ordered the bombing of Saddam Hussein's palace in Baghdad in 1991 and made a similar dry-eyed comment, "No one will weep for him when he is gone."
In 1998, after a failed attempt to kill Osama bin Laden in a missile attack on a camp in Afghanistan, President Clinton signed an executive order authorizing use of "lethal force" against Al Qaeda.
Now, says the Times, the Bush administration has compiled a list of about two dozen terrorist leaders starting with Mr. bin Laden - whom the CIA is authorized to kill. And the president has signed a "finding" providing authority for the "covert action," as required by law. The administration's position is that, as "enemy combatants," these terrorists are not protected by the order banning assassinations.
When it comes to assassination, the situation has changed since Sept. 11. Unlike government leaders targeted by US presidents - such as Mr. Castro, Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega, Libya's Qaddafi, and Iraq's Saddam Hussein - today's terrorists have no capitals and no fixed addresses. This makes it more difficult to target them.
However, the technology of assassination has advanced. Satellite imaging and National Security Agency eavesdropping are of some help in tracking targeted individuals. And the unmanned Predator aircraft, carrying Hellfire missiles, provides an updated way of killing at a distance without risk to the killers.
That was how a top Al Qaeda leader was killed last month while driving through a bleak stretch of desert in Yemen. Five others in the car were also killed in the missile strike. The modern mode of assassination by remote control tends to hit collateral and possibly innocent targets. This is perhaps why neither the White House nor the CIA will discuss this presidential license to kill.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.