YOU COULD ALMOST hear the jaw muscles flexing grimly when President Clinton and his national security advisers sat down to discuss the downing of TWA Flight 800.
Even in the secure Situation Room of the White House basement, it's unlikely anyone uttered the word, but it may well have been on the lips of a few people ringed around the oak table: assassination.
Payback. Pre-empt. Counter-terror. Swift justice. Call it by any other name, but it's an option on the mind of many Americans after a spate of recent bombings, particularly the downing of TWA Flight 800, in which terrorists are increasingly suspected.
Is it time to put guns in roses, to hit back with car bombs, exploding telephones, and silencers? The public rage is palpable.
Assassination was once a commonplace - if unacknowledged - tool of U.S. political and military leaders. The Congo's Patrice Lumumba was a target, so was the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo. South Vletnam's Ngo Dlnh Diem and Chile's Salvador Allende were snuffed out in U.S.-backed coups d'etat. Poisons, drugs, and dart guns, it seemed, were as common as paper cups at the CIA.
But "termination with extreme prejudice," in reality, was practiced mostly at lower levels, against communist or suspected communist agitators in the Third World. In Indonesia, the CIA helped organize "hit squads" to take out anti-Sukarno radicals. In Bolivia, U.S. Green Berets helped track down Ernesto "Che" Guevara. In Vietnam, the CIA and Pentagon invented the Phoenix Program to "neutralize" Viet Cong cadres.
And in Panama, the United States had an assassination plan code-named "Key Cities," which, in the event of an anti-U.S. coup, called for Green Berets to "eliminate left-wing politicians, labor leaders, known communists, and Marxist reporters," according to former Special Forces Capt. Budge Williams, who worked on the program.
By the end of the 1960s, however, America's enthusiasm for covert action was waning. Officials were worried that condoning assassinations could land them in jail. When Budge Williams and two other Green Berets executed a suspected North Vietnamese spy in 1969, they were arrested and charged with murder. The disaffection with James Bond continued with Watergate and congressional hearings on CIA murder plots. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford issued an executive order stating: "No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination."
The Senate committee that investigated CIA plots proposed an important loophole allowing the assassination of foreign leaders in time of war, but it was rejected.
But 15 years of terrorist attacks - the suicide bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, airline hijackings, the Achille Lauro, the World Trade Center bombing, the bombing of Pan Am 103, the recent attacks on U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia, and now, the speculation that a bomb brought down TWA Flight 800 - have provoked nostalgia for the good old days of executive action.
"I'm not at all opposed to appropriate retaliation when we find state-sponsored terrorism," William Webster, the former FBI and CIA director, said in a televised interview.
But should the United States start "whacking" terrorists with car bombs and silencers? Is it legal, moral? Or are there better ways to deal with the plague of international thugs?
The assassination of terrorists is morally defensible, argues Louis Rene Beres, professor of international law at Purdue University. "Punishment of violent crime is always at the very heart of justice, and in our decentralized system of world law, self-help by individual nations is often the only available path.
"In the absence of assassinations," Beres wrote recently, "terrorists like [Palestinian Yechya] Ayyash," recently killed by an exploding telephone, thought to have been planted by the Israelis, "would remain altogether free. Immune to the proper expectations of extradition and prosecution - the preferred mechanism of enforcement under international law - these terrorists would continue to murder innocent men, women and children without interference."
Actually, the United States never gave up its capability to shoot, poison, strangle, or garrote human targets, intelligence sources say, although hundreds of CIA covert action specialists were put on the shelf at the beginning of the Carter administration.
After the 444-day Iranian hostage ordeal, however, the United States got serious about its commando units. Delta teams, Navy SEALs, Air Commandos, and Army Green Berets - masters of the deadly arts - were retooled to handle a wider range of missions, including "snatches" and assassinations of terrorists.
In 1991, "I saw a videotape presentation that outlines U.S. capabilities - by deep-, deep-level Green Beret units - to carry out assassination," says a former CIA officer, who approves of having the capability.
But, he argued, the term "assassination" today doesn't carry the same weight as it did 35 years ago, when the CIA was trying to tempt a snorkeling Fidel Castro into picking up a booby-trapped seashell. Washington isn't recruiting jackals for high-level "wet work" these days, he said. The targets are much lower on the geopolitical Richter scale.
"It's more like 'A Clear and Present Danger'," said one recently retired CIA man, referring to the Tom Clancy thriller in which the CIA goes after a Latin American drug lord. That fiction may be close to the facts, however: A U.S. Marine explosives expert, who requested that his name be withheld, says he was part of the U.S.-Colombian team that tracked down and killed narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar in 1994.
In 1991, the Bush administration considered a plan to infiltrate Libya and assassinate terrorists thought to be responsible for blowing up Pan Am 103 over Scotland, according to three ex-intelligence operatives from the FBI and CIA. Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh rejected it, one said. "I don't know if it included Kadafi," the CIA officer said.
And during Desert Storm, "we actively sought Saddam" Hussein, said a former CIA officer. Responsibility for the mission, which apparently failed to get close enough to the Iraqi president to kill him, was in the hands of the CIA's Department of the Directorate of Operations.
U.S. assassins were deployed in Somalia and Panama, too, two former CIA officers said, underscoring that they were part of a military operation.
"Let's put it this way," said the ex-CIA officer. "If we've got an accessible target and we can get to him, we'll go get him.
"If assassination was deemed necessary," he added, "there are units that would carry that out. I hope nobody's surprised about that."
A retired FBI official, who worked closely with the CIA in establishing the government's Joint Terrorism Task Force in the 1980s, says no political hits were actually carried out on his watch.
Instead, the United States has favored a "law enforcement approach" - arresting Manuel Noriega during the invasion of Panama, luring terrorists out of their lairs on elaborate "stings," or capturing them with the help of friendly foreign police, after which they have been extradited to the United States for trial.
In 1986, for example, the FBI and CIA used the bogus promise of a lucrative drug deal to lure Palestinian terrorist Fawaz Yunnis to a yacht in the Mediterranean, where he was promptly arrested, brought to the United States, tried and convicted. Some of the defendants in the World Trade Center case were arrested abroad and brought here for trial, as was a Palestinian arrested in the Philippines for plotting to blow up U.S. airliners.
But most experts argue that it's not enough to arrest terrorists here and there, after each bomb blast.
"Right now, we're taking solely a law enforcement approach to terrorism," says Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer. "And I'm saying we should use law enforcement, but not exclusively."
Johnson favors presenting Libya with a deadline to turn over two men suspected of bombing Pan Am 103. If it passes without an acceptable response, we should take strong diplomatic and then military action, he says, such as cruise missile attacks on key political, industrial, and military targets. The last attack on Libya, during the Reagan administration, "quieted them down," he said.
The same goes for Syria and Iran if they are harboring individuals wanted for specific terrorist attacks, he says: Hit them with missiles.
(According to a widely circulated report attributed to Israeli intelligence last week, Iran held two gatherings for Hezbollah and other terrorist groups in mid-July, during which "a variety of arms shipments left Iran for various other countries in the Middle East including Syria and Libya.")
Brent Scowcroft, President George Bush's national security adviser, rejects tit-for-tat spasms in response to terrorist attacks, in favor of long-range intelligence-gathering on terrorist groups.
"What we need is to get inside them and break them up before they do something," he said in a TV interview.
The problem with that, counters Larry Johnson, is that it would require the CIA to put thugs and murderers on its payroll, a tactic that backfired when CIA connections to Guatemalan torturers was revealed this year.
The public and many politicians, Johnson says, "want it both ways": Get the information on undesirables but don't deal with undesirables. Which way is it going to be? To infiltrate terrorist groups, he warns, "you're to have to deal with a lot of unsavory characters."
Air strikes may not be as sexy as back-alley assassinations, many of the experts say, but they are probably the best response among unattractive options.
"We don't need to go out with assassination teams," Johnson said, which are "often counterproductive" and can provoke yet another cycle of terrorism.
"We've got to be careful not to overreact," says Clint Van Zandt, who created personality profiles of serial killers and terrorists for the FBI. "We've got to be careful not to be an industrial giant flailing at gnats buzzing at our head."
Nor should we take up methods that make us no better than the terrorists themselves, says former FBI special agent Carter Cornick, who headed the investigation that captured Michael Townley, an American who carried out a car-bombing for the Chilean secret police in 1976 in Washington.
"We've got to enforce the law, not make our own," Cornick says. "Bring them to the bar of justice, and lock them up."
Jeff Stein is the author of "A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War."