Spielberg Vs. Bush: Movies and Assassinations

What can Steven Spielberg's movie "Munich" show the Bush Administration about targeted assassinations?

January 12, 2006

What can Steven Spielberg's movie "Munich" show the Bush Administration about targeted assassinations?

Juxtaposing U.S. President George W. Bush’s decision to permit the CIA to hunt and kill designated individuals anywhere in the world against Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Munich,” raises interesting questions about the value of targeted assassinations.

While President Bush evidently believes they are critical to stopping terrorism, Spielberg’s film suggests the contrary.

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush issued a secret decree that determined that killing an al Qaeda operative was an act of self-defense and, therefore, not an assassination — which would be illegal.

In the same finding, he thereby authorized the creation of CIA hit units. In May 2005, one of these units was credited with killing al Qaeda operative Haitham Yemeni in Pakistan. Subsequently, in December 2005, another unit reportedly killed Hamza Rabia, a top al Qaeda operative, and four others.

In his recently released movie “Munich,” Steven Spielberg questions both this strategy and its rationale. He focuses on the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team in 1972, when the entire 11-member delegation was taken hostage and subsequently killed by Palestinian terrorists.

The movie also wrestles with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s decision to respond by having small units of Israeli hit teams hunt down and kill the Palestinian planners.

According to Spielberg’s account, the teams were largely successful in eliminating their targets. But he portrays the leader of one of these units, Avner Kauffman (played by Eric Bana), as personally haunted by what he has done.

The former Mossad agent is uncertain that the targets were really directly against those involved in the Munich attack, and he is concerned that rather than thwart terror, the assassinations actually fostered more hatred, more killing and more terrorists.

Kauffman further worries that in trying to defeat the terrorists on their own terms, he has become more like the terrorists and has, thereby, undermined the principles for which both he and Israel stand — including due process of law.

Equally important, he is concerned that the killing and counter-killing will cause the military agenda to become the political agenda — and, thereby, weaken the prospects for bringing all the killing to an end.

While Spielberg’s account may seem simplistic and moralistic, the United States has also been down this path before — in Vietnam, Cuba and Chile — and has come to similar conclusions.

In the 1970s, three former directors of Central Intelligence — John McCone, Richard Helms, and William Colby — testified against the use of targeted assassinations before the Church Committee of the U.S. Senate, which published the first definitive report on the CIA’s involvement with such assassinations.

The 1975 report, entitled “Alleged Assassination Plots Against Foreign Leaders,” confirmed that the CIA had tried to secure the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and Fidel Castro in Cuba.

When questioned about the plots by the committee, Mr. McCone and Mr. Colby declared assassinations morally wrong, while Mr. Helms argued that they did not work as a practical matter.

Helms also noted that one never knows who will replace the person eliminated — and whether one will be better off than when one started.

Using the elimination of Vietnamese President Diem as an example, he argued that the whole exercise turned out to the disadvantage of the United States. U.S. policymakers ultimately ended up with a revolving door of prime ministers, none of whom could mount anything stronger than a caretaker government.

The verdict is still out on President Bush’s decision to go after al Qaeda with CIA hit men. At one level, the paramilitary units are a success.

Targeted assassinations are part of a security agenda focused on preventing the next terrorist attack and the CIA’s hit units are credited with virtually all of the progress the United States has made in capturing or killing al Qaeda leaders since September 11, 2001.

At another level, however, Steven Spielberg may well be right. By their very nature, assassinations carry with them an element of vindictiveness and immorality. As a result, they may well grow the ranks of the terrorists and inspire more violence and hatred.

The issue is not simply whether assassinations are an effective tool in stopping terrorism. At issue is whether assassinations support or undermine the larger U.S. political agenda, which is to promote international peace, liberty and security through the growth of liberal democracies throughout the world.