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Iraq Special Report

  Altering Assassination Ban Might Increase Pressure on Saddam Hussein, Robb Says

By Justin Blum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 1998; Page A22

Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) said yesterday that if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein remains in power after a military assault and continues to defy the United Nations, the United States should consider changing an executive order forbidding the assassination of foreign leaders.

Robb would not specify how he would change the order, saying that he raised the issue to increase pressure on Saddam Hussein and to make him feel less secure.

"I'm simply trying to extend the discussion so it becomes clear to him that it's not simply a matter of, we're going to carry out one strike and if that doesn't work . . . we'll do the same thing again," Robb said. "There are other means to accomplish the objective."

Robb said the United States "should consider the possible modification or interpretation" of the order as a way to unnerve the Iraqi president. "He ought not to be able to sleep comforted by the fact that a law in the United States specifically prevents targeting him," Robb said.

The executive order prohibits U.S. government employees, or anyone acting on their behalf, from engaging in or conspiring to engage in an assassination. The order was first signed in 1976 by then-President Gerald R. Ford and would have to be modified by President Clinton.

P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the United States is not considering a change in the executive order.

"We do not think this current situation is about removing Saddam Hussein from power, but simply about dealing with the threat posed by his program of weapons of mass destruction," Crowley said. "Removing Saddam Hussein from power would take a significant ground force and require us to occupy Iraq. We do not feel that the risk is warranted."

Robb said that he wasn't suggesting a plan to assassinate Saddam Hussein and that the "basic prohibition against assassination is sound."

"I am talking about removing the comfort quotient that he currently enjoys in believing that he is personally immune from attack or the consequences of attack," Robb said. "He needs to understand that it's not one strike, one whack, one application of force and he wins."

Several military and political analysts said changing the executive order would be counterproductive. Richard K. Betts, a professor of political science at Columbia University and director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said repealing the order would likely make Saddam Hussein even more defiant.

"It sort of makes it a matter of honor for him to show that he's not intimidated, that he can't be scared by these kinds of threats," Betts said. "If he does cave in and surrender, it shows that he's scared and that the United States can push him around. . . . Why give us the satisfaction of backing down in the face of a threat?"

Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, said lifting the order would "bring us down to his level" and violate "international norms."

Korb also said he did not believe Saddam Hussein would feel more pressure if the order were changed.

"I don't think he believes we follow our own executive orders to begin with," Korb said. "I think he's paranoid about people coming to get him."

Former CIA director R. James Woolsey told a House committee last week that assassinating the Iraqi president would be ill-advised. Woolsey said that it would be "impractical and destructive of much of what we try to stand for in the world."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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