Why make this cancellation public, and now? Because openly airing a few dirty underpants will distract simple short-attention span minds from the unavoidable stench of much worse that is rotting under hasty burial. Did this program metastasize into a wider ranging disease that consumed Benazir Bhutto, and other foreign political leaders? (2)
The concept of a Phoenix Program targeting al Qaeda leaders reflects the banal inelegance and grandiose ambition of the small minds that devise our national intelligence schemes. As aerial bombardments and missile strikes from drone aircraft were killing too many innocent bystanders (a concern, but insufficient to stop the practice), a more “surgical” tool was wanted, an assassination bureau.
The assassination bureau is a perennially popular idea in politics. In Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers, Cardinal Richelieu dispatches the femme fatale Milady de Winter to ensure the Duke of Buckingham remains in England rather than leading English forces to the aid of the Huguenot rebels at La Rochelle during the 1627-1628 siege of that city by the Catholic forces of Louis XIII, King of France. The historic Duke of Buckingham was assassinated on 23 August 1628, stabbed.
Between 1968 and 1972, during the Vietnam War, the US Phoenix Program, aimed at the Communist Party in South Vietnam, “neutralized” 81,740 members of the National Liberation Front, of whom 26,369 were killed. The problem was that poor intelligence, a reliance on liars and conflicted stool pigeons, and corrupt bureaucrats padding their kill quotas and covering up their rake-offs, led to many politically inconsequential people being victimized, abused, tortured and killed. The network of resistance to the puppet regime of South Vietnam had grown in response to, and was maintained by the continuing presence of French and American imperialism in Vietnam, and this had long predated and far outpaced the weeding effort of the Phoenix Program.
A very drôle movie on the concept, The Assassination Bureau (1969), is based on an unfinished novel by Jack London, and set in Europe during WW1. The charm of this film lies entirely in the decorum of the main characters, and the degree of honor they display by adhering to the rules of their game. The contemporaneous Phoenix Program showed that real politics was far dirtier than this cinema comedy. The 1972 film of the 1969 novel The Godfather was closer to the grit and malevolence of programs like Phoenix, but though presented with Homeric grandeur it was focused on the relatively small scale of crime-family inner-city violence, in comparison to the vast campaigns of covert international warfare. (3) (4)
Cheney’s CIA assassination bureau scheme was envisioned as a US copy of the Israeli program of assassination of Palestinian leaders and other designated enemies. This type of program is run by a nation’s spy agency, which then calls on the military as needed to provide the firepower for an assassination, whether by commando units, aerial bombardment or missile strikes. Aside from any moral considerations (which never enter), the politically corrosive aspect of this covert assassination program is that an unaccountable and well-protected “intelligence” clique — which is freed of all democratic political and legal restraints — is conducting an undeclared and unacknowledged foreign war, thus making the nation’s citizens unwitting enemies of — and targets to — much of the rest of the world. The fact that Cheney gave the CIA orders to keep his program secret from the US Congress — and that this was obeyed! — shows that the American Praetorian Guard is as dangerously unregulated as was its Roman template. (5)
The CIA does not serve the interests of the American people, but instead milks them for the subsidy that funds the careerism of its covert bureaucrats, who engage in international crimes and intrigues that degrade peace, justice and honor generally, and stoke well-justified resentments abroad, which degrade the psychological basis of effective long-term security: goodwill. It would take an incredible revolution of popular democracy in the U.S. to regain control of the CIA and abolish it completely (as Constantine the Great did to the Praetorian Guard in the year 312, even to the point of razing its fortress in Rome, and grinding up the tombstones of its dead). Such an event seems as logically and politically impossible as it would be gloriously uplifting.
Ironically, though death is permanent, assassination does not terminate the ideas motivating the designated enemies du jour of the state. Killing people does not kill ideas. Campaigns of assassination can remove the intelligentsia and leadership cohort of a minority rights and social justice movement, but since such campaigns can only stall and frustrate liberation movements and not satisfy them, assassinations only prolong and coarsen the resistance to imperialism and domination. By removing the early, more educated, moderate and politically-oriented leaders, assassinations clear the way for impatient militants, whose resort to pitiless brutality is all too easily justified and supported by their constituencies, because of the failure of honest engagement by domineering powers (whether foreign imperialists or domestic authoritarian regimes). As the liberation struggles degenerate intellectually, militarily and humanistically, the prospects for a stable negotiated resolution diminish because: the popular leaders with demonstrated political skills — those who personify the ideas of the struggle — have been assassinated; careerist militants gain control of the war, be they rebels, insurgents, or government agents; and outrages committed out of despair by the frustrated and radicalized (or now “fundamentalist”) liberation movements, and out of hubris by the imperialist or authoritarian forces, blind reason to vengeance.
Victoria Brittain explains these consequences in her heart-rending, richly detailed scholarly work on assassinations by western states, committed in Africa and Palestine, primarily during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but stretching to recent years, and titled “They Had To Die: Assassination Against Liberation” (2006). (6)
The U.S. supported the apartheid regime in South Africa during its 1966-1989 Border War with Angola, Namibia and Zambia (and Zimbabwe), and it allowed former US military officers to work as free-lance mercenary assassins for the South African Defense Force (SADF). Though it is technically illegal for US citizens to act as mercenaries and work as assassins for foreign governments, this technicality was conveniently ignored in those cases where the success of a “private business deal” was of political interest to the US State Department and the CIA (who “winked” and afterwards debriefed). Former members of the US military who had combat experience or superior training as members of elite commando-type units (e.g., Special Forces, Army Rangers) could earn enough to fund a very comfortable and immediate retirement, far beyond what was likely with any tenure in the US military, with just one or two undercover operations for the SADF. The American and European agents dispatching the targets described by Victoria Brittain were merely politically expendable labor (some were captured and executed), though well-trained thanks to earlier taxpayer investments. (7)
South Africa lost its border war, so foreign troops (Cubans aiding, and South Africans invading) left Angola in 1988, Namibia gained its independence in 1989, and agitation in South Africa against the apartheid state swelled from 1990 till apartheid was overturned in 1994.
The ad hoc labor market for mercenary forces was systematized after the South African Border War, and today the public is familiar with private military companies (PMCs) like Blackwater USA (now Xe) and DynCorp International, because of their “exploits” in Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia. Today’s PMCs can provide a variety of non-combat services that support traditional military forces, specialized technology for armed attack (e.g., helicopter gunships); as well as do the classic mercenary jobs of providing personal protection, and supplying small to moderate-sized infantry units. The PMC business is now worth $100B a year, sapping trained personnel from the ranks of numerous national special forces (”money talks and bullshit walks”), and encouraging the growth of PMCs in many countries. There is always a demand for war services, and the “miracle of the free market” ensures a competitive corporate response to that market demand.
Today’s PMCs are the Pinkertons of globalization. And, it is no doubt safe to assume that assassination is still a profitable business. It just doesn’t solve anything; it is the equivalent of midnight dumping of historical toxic waste into our collective future.