The blurt by Pat Robertson on the matter of Hugo Chavez received the kind of spastic disavowal it deserved, and also warranted. It would not be sensible to undertake the assassination of Hugo Chavez. Diplomatically it was a mistake even to use the language of assassination. And the greatest damage was to increase the odds against any assassination of Chavez. If he was going to be shot, or yanked from office, this could be done, and would best be done, by Venezuelans. They very nearly did it last April. U.S. intervention to limit Chavez’s term was alleged back then, but we could plausibly deny having had anything to do with the movement to recall him. Now, even though Pat Robertson cannot be conceived by a jury of halfwits as representing U.S. policy, what he said will be quoted by generations of communicants in the religion of anti-yanquiism to throw doubt on U.S. bona fides.
The principal reason to disavow the assassination of foreign leaders is self-interest. People who are elected or who otherwise achieve political primacy are vested with sacramental immunity. Many kings, presidents, and dictators depend for their survival on domestic arrangements. The Emperor Julian required that anyone who entered into his chamber should be stark naked. Mao Tse-tung did not go that far, but might as well have done so given the elaborate measures he adopted to remove himself from the common man he spent his lifetime glorifying, and avoiding the company of.
Now here is a key point. Sometimes rules are broken. But–it is always wrong, when they are broken, to admit that they have been broken. Not even Congress, let alone the Associated Press, serves the role of confessor.
It was this rule that was most flagrantly violated by the Church Committee in 1975. Here was a “Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.” I am staring at Senate Report No. 94-465, Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders. “We have found concrete evidence of at least eight plots involving the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro from 1960 to 1965.” That document bears the signatures of Frank Church, chairman, John Tower, vice chairman, and then Democratic Senators Gary Hart, Walter Mondale, Walter Huddleston, Robert Morgan, and Philip Hart, and Republican Senators Howard Baker, Barry Goldwater, Bob Mathias, and Richard Schweiker.
Critics, among them Arthur Schlesinger, dismissed the attempted assassinations as acts of a rogue executive agency, acting roguishly. It can be held that the CIA acted ineptly, but not that it acted on its own steam.
Senator Howard Baker years ago brought to my own attention the recorded questioning of Richard Helms, then CIA chief, on whether Attorney General Robert Kennedy was aware of the attempts on the life of Castro. The answer was that Kennedy was aware (confirmed by Baker, by telephone, today). Based on the Church hearings, I wrote a novel in 1987 (Mongoose R.I.P.) describing the attempts on the charmed life of the dictator.
The Venezuelan vice president has asked for a more direct repudiation of Mr. Robertson by President Bush. In fact, lesser voices than the president’s have done all the disavowing that needs to be done. To add his own voice would be psychologically ill-advised. The critics in Venezuela and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere will harp on the Reverend Robertson’s placing the desires of the flesh above those of the spirit. For President Bush to come on the scene to throw yet another spear into the infidel suggests that another spear is needed, even though those who have eyes to see, and minds to use, know that Mr. Robertson is quite dead, needing no supplementary toxin.
Meanwhile, the memory of U.S. presidential complicity in assassination plots is very nearly dead. There have been no references, post the Robertson initiative, to the old “Special Group” that began to meet every Tuesday morning in 1962 in the White House Situation Room to discuss the end of Castro. McGeorge Bundy was the group’s chairman. Bundy reported to the president “on the desirability of not spreading knowledge of covert operations any wider than absolutely necessary, if we are to preserve the principal of deniability.”
Arthur Schlesinger captured priorities precisely, in a memorandum written in April 1961. “When lies must be told, they should be told by subordinate officials. At no point should the president be asked to lend himself to the cover operation. There seems to me merit in Secretary Rusk’s suggestion that someone other than the president make the final decision and do so in his absence — someone whose head can later be placed on the block if things go terribly wrong.”
One of Schlesinger’s “failure options” was to put the blame on the CIA as “errant idealists and soldiers-of-fortune working on their own.” We can safely assume that the CIA never even saw the Robertson broadcast.