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Congress Considers Lifting Ban Against Foreign Assassinations

By Paul Richter
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

With the country entangled in a widening war on terrorism, members of Congress are suddenly weighing whether the United States should ease a ban on assassinations that has been a central tenet of U.S. policy for two decades.

Influential Democrats have joined Republicans in asking whether the broad and vaguely worded executive order should be revised, perhaps to allow targeted attacks on terrorist leaders or greater latitude for opposition groups allied with the United States to strike at a common enemy.

The assassination ban was adopted by President Ford in 1976 at a time of public revulsion at disclosures about covert attempts against such adversaries as Cuban Premier Fidel Castro.

But critics contend the ban has fostered a policy of official hypocrisy as administrations have continued to try to eliminate U.S. enemies - including Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi, and Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden - while insisting that they are targeting military facilities rather than specific individuals.

Critics say this approach is intellectually dishonest, and, by using large military operations, risks the lives of more innocent bystanders and U.S. military personnel than would any simple assassination.

"This isn't morally or ethically preferable in any way," said L. Paul Bremer III, who served as the Reagan's top counterterrorism official.

Clinton administration officials continue to declare their support for the ban. But, amid a broader rethinking of U.S. tactics, questions about its wisdom are coming from a diverse collection of lawmakers.

Congress isn't likely to pass a law telling the president what to do, for fear of treading on presidential prerogatives. But it could bring its influence to bear by passing a resolution of intent.