Once referred to in Central Intelligence Agency parlance as “termination with extreme prejudice” and within the KGB as “wet affairs,” assassination has been considered an option by many security and intelligence agencies, although direct proof of state-sponsored murder has been harder to find. Evidence relating to Soviet policy on the subject comes from Moscow, which openly acknowledged the existence, until March 1946, of a department known by the Russian acronym Smersh (“Death to spies”) that used summary execution as its principal instrument in eliminating counterrevolutionaries. Thereafter testimony from two self-confessed assassins, Nikolai Khokhlov and Bogdan Stashinsky, confirmed the extent to which the Kremlin endorsed murder as a political expedient.
In 1954 Khokhlov defected to the CIA in Germany and revealed that he had been sent on a mission to Frankfurt to shoot the Ukrainian nationalist leader, George Okolovich, with bullets coated in cyanide and fired from an ingenious pistol concealed in a pack of cigarettes. Having been resettled in Switzerland by the CIA, Khokhlov was himself the victim of an attempt on his life, and he was poisoned with a powerful radioactive toxin, thallium, but survived the attack.
In 1961, Stashinsky, another KGB defector, revealed that he had been responsible for the deaths of émigrés Lev Rebet and Stephan Bandera, both of whom hitherto had been believed to have died of natural causes. Stashinsky demonstrated a gas gun that released a lethal cloud of prussic acid, killing without leaving any trace. Both murders had been attributed to cardiac arrest, but Stashinsky provided compelling proof of the Kremlin’s complicity in the assassinations. He was later sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment in Germany and was released in January 1966.
The defection of Oleg Lyalin in 1972 provided the West with an account of the reforms imposed on the KGB’s notorious 13th Department following Stashinsky’s revelations and further evidence that the KGB’s policy toward assassination had not changed. This was borne out in December 1979 when KGB Spetsnaz troops shot Afghan president Hafizmullah Amin in his palace in Kabul.
In contrast, despite numerous allegations, there is no evidence that the CIA has indulged in assassination, although President Dwight D. Eisenhower demanded the murder of the Congolese separatist Patrice Lumumba. On that occasion the CIA station chief in Kigali declined, and Lumumba was later hacked to death in August 1960 by assassins acting on behalf of the Belgian government.
During the Pike and Church Committee congressional hearings in 1973, testimony was given in relation to the deaths of President Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam, Abdel Kassem in Iraq, Salvador Allende of Chile, and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, but the CIA was exonerated in each case. Indeed, Senator Frank Church deliberated over the issues raised by assassination policies, citing the example of the failure to eliminate Adolf Hitler, and did not rule it out as a possible last resort, and President Gerald Ford did not publicly ban the assassination of foreign leaders until he issued his Executive Order 11905 in February 1976. That prohibition remained in force, confirmed by Jimmy Carter in January 1978 (Executive Order 12036) and by Ronald Reagan in December 1982 (Executive Order 12333), until President George W. Bush authorized the assassination of Saddam Hussein.