Examination Of Executive Order 11905
President Gerald Ford was the first president to limit the military and other organizations from assassinations in the American government’s name. This has far reaching consequences and has an increasing political significance in today’s world. But if it were an inconvenience for the United States to be limited like this why would president Ford endorse such an order? Furthermore, how have subsequent presidents interpreted and reacted to this restriction? This question will be answered by researching various political actions and opinions throughout the time span effected by the Executive Order.
During the mid 1970s the New York Times’ investigative journalists were reporting on underhand operations performed by the CIA. This is when they found evidence of domestic spying, which was contrary to the CIA’s 1947 charter statement, which stated specifically that the CIA would never be used against domestic persons. These illegal actions elicited further investigations by Times’ reporters. Ford, in a conversation to a journalist, let slip that there may be other skeletons in the CIA’s closet that involved assassination and other such underhanded operations. Because of this President Ford was under continuing pressure to take action to reinstate integrity into the intelligence agencies and indeed the White House. Under this pressure Ford issued Executive Order 11905, which states, “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” This is the United States confirming what it had already signed in the Geneva Conventions in 1947. This says that: “Governments shall prohibit by law all extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions and shall ensure that any such executions are recognized as offences under their criminal laws, and are punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account the seriousness of such offences. Exceptional circumstances including a state of war or threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency may not be invoked as a justification of such executions.”
That is the atmosphere in which Gerald Ford felt the need to create Executive Order 11905, but why did these conditions arise at this juncture and not earlier or later? This can be explained by other current events. Gerald Ford was handed the presidency from Richard Nixon who was forced to resign his position. Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal that cost him his presidency and caused many Americans and foreigners alike to lose faith in the integrity of the American government. Ford wanted desperately to restore their faith and when the New York Times broke the story accusing the Central Intelligence Agency of devious, underhanded activities this was at least golden opportunity, if not a necessary action. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan after him confirmed and expanded this order.
Further actions that raised the value of the Ban were the CIA’s actions in Cuba. There had been several attempts to assassinate the communist Cuban leader Fidel Castro. None were successful but entangled the United States government in crisis with the Soviet Union. This was all very embarrassing and it was believed that limiting the deadliness of the CIA’s covert actions would help restore some of the decency of the Agency, as well as avoid further political fallout associated with failed attempts.
It made no difference that none of the CIA’s attempts were officially deemed successful. Senator Frank Church held investigations into the Intelligence Agencies use of covert actions and assassinations. This gave raise to the Church Committee. It refers to the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, held in 1975. There was an extensive report condemning the attempts made by U.S. officials to assassinate foreign leaders based on ideology.
President Carter readdressed and updated the ban on assassinations in Executive Order 12036 in 1978. Reagan did the same in 1981’s Executive Order 12333. It was updated limiting from “political murders” not only government employees but also persons acting on behalf of the government. One shortcoming of all of these orders was that the term assassination was never properly defined.
Moreover, executive orders are not laws and can be repealed easily by the president without informing the public firsthand. Furthermore, there are laws that decree that the United States may use force to repel any invasion and use force to defend itself from any imminent threat. Governments can use this to justify the assassinations of political leaders with ideologies counter to American beliefs. Since the term assassination is not defined in the Orders written by the presidents it has been easy to interpret actions that lead to the death of individuals as something other than assassination. Webster’s dictionary defines it as: “to murder (a prominent person) by surprise attack, as for political reasons.” (SOURCE)
Another aspect up for debate is who all is covered under 11905. Terrorists are considered military thr4eats to the security of the United States and would therefore be fair targets. Unfortunately, the word “terrorist” is not clearly defined.
But how does the rest of the worldview America’s ban on assassinations? Some see it as finally upholding the Geneva Convention, which it has helped ratify and endorsed in 1947 (SOURCE). Others are skeptical or outright don’t believe America would uphold the Order and finally it is viewed by some as an attempt to regain some integrity after the Watergate scandal and failed assassination attempts of previous administrations.
President Ronald Reagan was the last president to officially address the ban on assassinations. However, he set a precedent for interpretations of the ban that did allow individuals to be targeted without deeming it “assassination”. In 1986 the Libyan President Muammar Quaddafi bombed a Berlin club that was often frequented by American troops. In response to this Reagan ordered an air attack on the Palace of Quaddafi justifying it as self-defense.
President George H.W. Bush also saw it legal to oust Panamanian leader Manuel Noreaga in 1989. As did President Bill Clinton when he fired cruise missiles at suspected guerilla camps in Afghanistan. All of these were labeled something other than assassinations and therefore did not violate any of the executive orders. “While a President may not specifically plan or approve the specific killing of a foreign leader, it is not illegal to authorize action wherein the leader’s death may be a result.” (SOURCE)
The legality and usefulness has once again been called into question after the September 11th attacks. Does the ban include terrorists? What if they are plotting an attack on U.S. persons, could this not be construed as self-defense? The Bush administration stated that “The presidential directive banning assassinations would not prevent the United States from acting in self-defense.” (SOURCE) In fact, the Washington Post declared that President Bush signed an intelligence “finding” initiated a plan for the CIA to engage in “lethal covert operations” specifically aimed at eliminating the terrorist Osama Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda organization. And that the White House does not believe this to be illegal because the bans on assassination does not apply during wartime or to terrorists. (SOURCE).
Unfortunately, the name terrorist is undefined by the legislature that allows for there assassination. Even Webster’s definition of terrorist is somewhat nebulous simply put as “One that engages in acts or an act of terrorism.” Therefore, this gives a lot of freedom to who the Whitehouse can label as a terrorist and therefore who they can lawfully engage in assassination attempts.