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Why Did President Ford Ban Assassinations?

This article was first published on November 4, 2001.

Until 1975 few people outside the government knew that the United States had ever plotted the assasination of foreign leaders. Even many high officials inside the government did not know, including Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, and President Gerald Ford. All that changed, however, as the result of a series of exposes published in the New York Times by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.

The story came out as the result of a disclosure by the president himself. In late 1974 Hersh had stumbled upon evidence that the CIA had been engaged in domestic spying, in express violation of its 1947 charter. After he had assembled his evidence he went to the head of the CIA, William Colby, for an explanation. Colby promptly warned the White House, which wanted to know what other skeletons lurked in the CIA closet. Colby, complying, sent over a copy of a document known as the Family Jewels, which had been prepared at the direction of the previous director, James Schlesinger, near the end of his term. The Family Jewels listed every underhanded operation in which the CIA had ever been engaged, including plots to assassinate foreign leaders. When Colby after the Christmas holiday briefed the president he emphasized the assasination plots.

In January the Senate, alarmed by the disclosures concerning domestic spying, established the Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, chaired by Frank Church. Colby, called to testify, revealed that the CIA had indeed spied on antiwar protesters. Kissinger moaned:"Every time Bill Colby gets near Capital Hill, the damn fool feels an irresistible urge to confess to some horrible crime."

But as historian Christopher Andrew relates,"it was Ford himself" who"inadvertently revealed the most sensational crimes of all."

At a White House lunch for the publisher and editors of the New York Times on January 16 [1975] the president revealed that the intelligence files contained material that it was against the national interest to reveal because it would"blacken the reputation of every President since Truman.""Like what?" asked one of the editors."Like assassinations!" replied Ford, adding hastily,"That's off the record!" It was, by any standards, an astonishingly ill-judged remark. Colby was told what Ford had said the next day."I was stunned," he recalls."I just couldn't figure out how it had happened. My conclusion is that it was just Ford being the straightforward guy he is. He's not a Machiavellian, ... and he was being pressed."

In fact, as Andrew relates,"all the CIA's assassination plots had either failed or been abandoned," but Ford's remark eventually got around, though the editors of the Times had decided not to publish it. Eventually CBS's Daniel Schorr got wind of the story and made it national news."President Ford," Schorr reported,"has warned associates that if current investigations go too far they could uncover several assassinations of foreign officials involving the CIA."

In the months that followed the pressure grew on Ford to renounce assassinations. Determined to restore the integrity of the presidency in the wake of Watergate, he pinned the blame on rogue officials at the CIA. In March Ford announced at a press conference,"I will not condone-in fact I condemn-any CIA involvement in any assassination planning or action. ... I am personally looking at, analyzing all of the more recent charges of any assassination attempts by the CIA or actual assassinations from its inception to the present."

In early 1976, following a year of disclosures, investigations and public revulsion, President Ford issued an executive order banning the assassinations. Senator Church praised the president's action."It is," said Church,"simply intolerable that any agency of the government of the United States may engage in murder."

  • Christopher Andrew, For the President's Eyes Only (1996)
  • Stephen F. Knott, Secret and Sanctioned (1996)

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