Can The CIA Take On Saddam Hussein?



Saddam Hussein now knows what he is up against: President George Bush has given the green light to the Central Intelligence Agency to do all it can to drive him from power ­ even killing him, although this would have to be in “self-defence”.


But if the Iraqi leader is quaking at the news, is it from fear or just laughter?


On the one hand, the CIA has 55 years of experience in diverting the politics of other nations, sometimes to historic effect. Governments have been ousted in countries as far apart as the Congo and Chile thanks to its dastardly doings.


And leaders have indeed been killed, with CIA connivance. During the 1950s, 60s and 70s the agency clandestinely and successfully masterminded coups in Iran, Guatemala, Iraq, Chile, Guyana and the Congo, formerly Zaire.


On the other hand, the CIA’s operations over the decades have frequently either gone awry ­ remember the disastrous “Bay of Pigs” invasion of communist Cuba in 1961 ­ or even when deemed a success, left a tragic political legacy.


The CIA-backed assassination of Patrice Lumumba of the Congo in 1960 made way for the 32-year reign of terror by the former dictator Joseph Mobutu, later Mobutu Sese Seko. The 1954 coup in Guatemala led to 35 years of civil war that left more than 140,000 dead.


And as secret documents have been declassified, Americans have learned of many of the unsavoury alliances CIA operatives have forged to achieve their aims ­ for example, in America’s efforts to oust President Salvador Allende of Chile. And there was Washington’s silent approval of the invasion of East Timor by Indonesia, along with the illegal use of US arms.


Mr Bush’s order to the CIA, detailed by The Washington Post last weekend, to use all its resources to precipitate Saddam’s ousting, means the agency will once more be up to its old tricks in Iraq. As well its own spies, it will have crack teams of American special forces at its disposal. It is a mission in the best ­ and arguably the very worst ­ of the agency’s traditions. That it might fail is something that the CIA director, George Tenet, has reportedly put on record already.


According to the Post, Mr Tenet told the President and his cabinet recently that the CIA’s actions alone, without any kind of follow-up military assault, stands only a 10 to 20 per cent chance of succeeding. He knows his history and his caution was probably well-placed.


So dismal was the image of the CIA when it turned 50 in 1997 that voices were raised in Washington ­ including those of two former directors ­ that it be dismantled and a new
intelligence body be built from scratch. That didn’t happen. It is ironic that since 11 September, when its worst failure of all ­ protecting America from foreign terror ­ was exposed, the agency has been given new and multiplied burdens, notably hunting al-Qa’ida and now toppling President Saddam.


Now all the old questions about the CIA and its methods will be asked anew. How far can its operatives go in precipitating the murder of a foreign leader? And what sort of tactics ­ ethical or repugnant ­ might it employ? And in the event that the CIA does trigger President Saddam’s demise, would Iraq without him prove more benign or even more of a nightmare than it is now?


The killing of Saddam should be as easy as popping some poison in his whisky ­ he is, we are often reminded, fond of more than an occasional glass of the stuff. That sounds silly but it was, after all, the kind of approach that was adopted by the agency in the early 1960s when Washington was clamouring for the removal of Cuba’s left-wing leader, Fidel Castro.


Early in 1961, the CIA sought the services of a mobster from Chicago to kill the Cuban revolutionary. At a secret meeting in Miami, they furnished him with tiny gelatine capsules filled with botulinum toxin. The gangster, John Rosselli, was
instructed to drop the capsules in Mr Castro’s food, with the warning they wouldn’t work in “boiling soup”. The plan failed, of course, partly because Mr Castro suddenly stopped frequenting the restaurant that Rosselli had cased.


There were plenty of other, equally comical, plots hatched in the corridors of the agency. Famously, one proposed lacing one of Castro’s cigars with a hallucinogenic similar to LSD, in the hope that he would then give a speech under its effects and be revealed as a ranting madman. Someone else in the agency thought of dusting his shoes with thallium to make his beard fall out. There was also the idea of infecting his diving suit with a fungus to cause a chronic skin disease.


It was also in 1961 and in Cuba that the CIA suffered possibly its most humiliating disaster ever. That was the CIA-led Bay of Pigs mission: designed to topple Mr Castro, it foundered almost as soon as the brigade of anti-revolutionary fighters tried to come ashore. Despite attempts at
secrecy, Mr Castro apparently had ample warning to respond. When it was over, 114 members of the invading force were killed and 1,189 more were taken prisoner.


It is unclear, meanwhile, just how far the CIA could go in seeking, or orchestrating the murder of President Saddam. Mr Bush couched his authorisation for the Iraqi to be killed in “self-defence” for a very good reason. Since the 1970s, the CIA ­ or any agent of the US government ­ is prohibited from directly seeking the assassination of a foreign leader. The attempts on Mr Castro’s life were first revealed to a Senate intelligence committee, known as the Church Committee after its chairman, Senator Frank Church, in 1976.


Members also learned how the CIA tried to infect a toothbrush of Lumumba, the first post-colonial premier of the Congo, with a deadly African plague. That led President Gerald Ford to issue an executive order banning assassinations by all US agencies. Later presidents renewed the ban.


There has always been debate, however, as to how water-tight the ban really is.


An executive order does not have the same legal standing as a law passed by Congress. Nor is it obvious how far America’s spies are at liberty still to help engineer a murder of a
foreign leader, for instance by assisting would-be assassins from indigenous dissident groups to commit the act so long as they leave no American fingerprints. The other possible loophole ­ the one apparently chosen by this White House ­ is to allow the killing of a leader “in self-defence”.


Few people would mourn the death of President Saddam. But other unintended consequences might flow from an extended CIA operation in Iraq. The catalogue of the CIA catastrophes around the world ­ albeit some of them catastrophes with the benefit of hindsight ­ is, after all, depressingly thick.


Previous CIA plots


IRAN
The 1951 nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company by Iran’s Prime Minister at the time, Mohammed Mossadegh, brought him into conflict with the Shah of Iran when Britain boycotted Iranian oil in protest. The US and Britain orchestrated a coup by encouraging Iranians working for the CIA to turn the Islamic community against the nationalist Mossadegh. In August 1953, the Shah signed a CIA-penned royal decree replacing Mossadegh with General Fazlollah Zahedi, who was handpicked by America and Britain.


CHILE
The CIA began undermining the coalition government of the socialist President Salvador Allende even before he was elected in 1970, amid fears of the impact of his election on US-owned mining firms. President Nixon ordered the CIA to prevent him taking office but the first attempted coup failed. The CIA did not give up, having been told to “make the economy scream”. The US approved $1m in covert aid to political parties and private organisations three weeks before Allende’s overthrow in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet. For years, Washington denied its role in the coup.


CUBA
Two years after the overthrow of the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 by Fidel Castro, the US launched its disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, which sent 1,300 CIA-trained Cuban exiles to the island. Their defeat after three days of battles was a huge embarrassment for President John F Kennedy. Various madcap assassination schemes followed. President Castro has survived 40 years of sanctions, which the US is refusing to lift.


CONGO
Patrice Lumumba, who led his country to independence from Belgium and became its first elected Prime Minister in 1960, was assassinated in a CIA-backed operation with the help of Belgian intelligence – and UN connivance — four months after he took office. He was abducted by Congolese rebels and killed in the province of Katanga, which declared independence after Lumumba’s election. The order for his assassination came from President Eisenhower. Belgium has apologised for its role in his killing.


INDONESIA
President Suharto came to power in a CIA-backed coup in 1966 that ousted Sukarno, the father of the current President, Megawati Sukarnoputri. The coup followed an abortive putsch in 1965, engineered by America and Britain, and blamed on Indonesia’s Communist Party. Hundreds of thousands of Communist sympathisers were massacred by the army.Historians have said America passed on the names of Communists to the army. The new president offered lucrative concessions to Western firms.


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