Televangelist Pat Robertson is in hot water, for suggesting that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez be assassinated. On Monday's broadcast of the 700 Club, Reverend Robertson said, "if he (Chavez) thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I really think we ought to go ahead and do it." Robertson also observed that bumping off Chavez "would be cheaper than starting another $200 million war. " He accused Chavez of destroying the Venezuelan economy, and using his country as a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism.
The Bush Administration quickly--and appropriately--distanced itself from Robertson's remarks. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted that assassination of foreign leaders is "illegal" under U.S. law. He also emphasized that Reverend Robertson is a private citizen expressing his own views, and not those of the Defense Department, or the White House.
A couple of points here. First, no one seems to be disputing Robertson's assessment of Chavez. Indeed, the Venezuelan President has damaged his nation's economy, stripping private property from middle and upper class citizens and giving it to the poor, his largest constituency. He openly supports Colombian terrorist groups like the FARC and ELN and provides support and sanctuary in his country.
Additionally, Chavez is an ardent admirer of Cuba's Fidel Castro, and has allowed thousands of Cubans to live and work in his country. Disturbing intelligence reports suggest that many of the Cubans have ties to Castro's intelligence service. And, if that weren't enough, Chavez appears to be getting chummy with Kim Jong-il and North Korea, raising the possibility that NK missile technology could make its way to Venezuela. Reverend Robertson is correct in describing Chavez as a bad man who represents a growing threat to our security interests in this hemisphere.
Now, on to the question of assassinating Chavez. Would it be legal? Well, Jerry Ford did sign an executive order in the mid-1970s, outlawing assassination of foreign leaders as an "official" tool of U.S. policy. But Ford didn't have the final word on that subject. In the early 1980s, President Reagan signed another executive order, giving the U.S. more latitude in that area.
How much latitude, you ask? Well, enough wiggle room to allow attempts on Saddam's life during both Gulf Wars. During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the Air Force dispatched four B-1 bombers to a Baghdad neighborhood where Saddam was reportedly hiding. The bombers were enroute to another target when U.S. intelligence pinpointed Saddam's location, prompting Allied commanders to re-target the B-1s. Their "revised" mission was simple, but unstated: kill Saddam and members of his entourage.
We mounted a similar effort to get Saddam during the first Gulf War. Before the conflict began, the U.S. mounted a crash program to develop a hardened, penetrating munition, capable of reaching deep underground bunkers. U.S. engineers developed one in barely a month, combining an 8-inch artillery shell with a laser guidance system.
During the latter stages of the war, U.S. intelligence received reports that Saddam was holed up in an underground bunker in the Iraqi countryside, and would remain there for several days. In an effort to target the Iraqi leader, a prototype bunker buster was flown, non-stop from a depot in California to an F-111 base in Saudi Arabia. When the transport aircraft arrived, the munition was quickly off-loaded and mounted on a waiting F-111, its engines running. Technical experts leaned into the cockpit and briefed the F-111 crew on how to employ the weapon. Moments later, the F-111 roared down the runway and lifted off, heading for Saddam's bunker. The weapon worked and the bunker was destroyed but Saddam wasn't home; he had left the facility a short time earlier.
While these efforts appear to contradict President Ford's original executive order, such assumptions are false. Presidents can modify or contravene executive orders as they see fit; as Clinton advisor Paul Begala observed, "stroke of the pen, law of the land, kinda cool." Reagan's clarification of the policy, coupled with later decisions by his successors, gives the Commander-in-Chief the ability to mount assassination operations and the legal foundation to carry them out. For example, the 2003 attempt on Saddam was justified (in part) by his status as Commander-in-Chief of Iraq's military, making him (in the eyes of DOD and White House laywers), a legitimate military target.
The same criteria could be applied to President Chavez. He should consider himself warned.