Richard Reeves

A Foolish President Brags About Assassination

WASHINGTON -- In one of the capital's many morning-after talkfests, Pietro Nivola, the Brookings Institution's senior fellow in governmental affairs, said he had never seen such a profound change in the mood of presidency and people as he, and the rest of us, have experienced between President Bush's first and second State of the Union addresses. He repeated the sober line that impressed him most, quoting Bush: "We have gone from small matters to great causes."

A great line. But there are always small matters hidden in the secrecy that attends great matters of national security. This is a dangerous time in American history, and not just because of evil done by Saddam Hussein and other haters of the whole idea of America. Making war on Iraq has obviously become the president's first priority, but that is a relatively small and rather straightforward priority compared with the snares of the secret war against terrorism at home and abroad.

The hidden war, a bit of it, had come home to Brookings, here on Massachusetts Avenue, only the day before, the day of Bush's address to the nation. A prominent Pakistani editor and scholar, Ejaz Haider, was stopped by two armed men in plainclothes as he walked into the Brookings building for a conference on immigration law and law enforcement. The men identified themselves as agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and took Haider away to jail in Virginia.

"We were stunned," said Stephen Cohen, the director of Brookings' South Asia program, which employed Haider. "I never thought I'd see this in my own country: people grabbed on the street and taken away. If he hadn't come into the building to show the agents some notes, it is not clear we would have known where he was."

Haider, who may have been in violation of an INS regulation requiring visitors to contact the service if they stay in the United States for more than 30 days, is a very lucky man. Among other things, he happens to be a personal friend of Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, who happened to be meeting with Attorney General John Ashcroft that same day. Kasuri demanded to know where Haider was and why he had been picked up.

The scholar was released. Kasuri said later: "If that is the sort of person that can be nabbed, then no one is safe."

Yes. Haider could have disappeared in the American prisons and prison camps that are hidden in the small print of the great war against terrorism. Or he could have been executed without trial or mention.

Oh, you don't think that happens here? Americans don't do such things?

If so, then you were not watching and listening carefully to the president last Tuesday night. I literally leaped out of my seat when Bush said this:

"To date we have arrested, or otherwise dealt with, many key commanders of al-Qaida. ... All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way, they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies."

In other words, Americans are out there murdering "suspected" terrorists. And the president smirked and almost wink-winked with pleasure. He was bragging about American assassinations.

I wrote a book once about a president who was assassinated, John F. Kennedy. I am often asked if I have a theory about his murder. And I do. In those days, the U.S. government, at the highest level, was in the assassination business. Fidel Castro was the most obvious target, but there were others. Sudden political murder was in the air. In that environment, Lee Harvey Oswald was among those, including an organization called Fair Play for Cuba, who were frantically talking of American plots.

However it began, it ended when our president was the one gunned down. And when you think of it, the president of a free country is at much more risk than dictators in police states.

There is also the question of superpower. When you have the weapons and capabilities that the United States has, it is stupid to reduce war and threat to one man with a rifle. Assassination is the weapon of the weak; it is a very dangerous business and ultimately a foolish one for the free and the strong.

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