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American Morning

Sound Off: Does War on Terror Give U.S. Government License to Kill Terrorists Abroad?

Aired December 19, 2001 - 08:42   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Time to "Sound Off" this morning. Does the war on terror give the U.S. government a license to kill terrorists abroad?


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECY. OF DEFENSE: If the question is, do we have a right to defend ourselves by going after people who murder thousands of Americans in a preemptive way to defend ourselves? You bet your life we do. And we are doing it.


ZAHN: But how does the government decide who to assassinate, and who to interrogate?

Joining us now from Washington, Democratic political strategist Bob Beckel, and from New York, Cliff May, former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

ZAHN: Welcome. Good morning, gentlemen.



ZAHN: All right, Bob, you've got no way around this one. The president, you know, Bush, waived the presidential order that bars political assassinations. Was that the right thing to do?

BECKEL: Before I answer that, would you tell Jack, instead of the morning show, what about being Geraldo Rivera's line producer.

The -- a little shot to network. The answer is absolutely not. If you talk about a relic of the Cold War, the idea of assassinating people is putting right in bed along the likes of the Iraqis, the Saudis. I mean, it's the most obscene, un-American, disgraceful, disgusting concept. You think I've said enough about that? It is unconstitutional. It would e against our Bill of Right.

MAY: Bob.

BECKEL: Wait a second. And I don't want it to be left up to a CIA agent to be judge and jury.

MAY: OK, Bob, listen, this is clearly one of the weapons we need to have in our arsenal. Just imagine that tomorrow we find out that Osama bin Laden is staying in a safehouse in suburban Karachi or Mogadishu. We can't rely on the government to nab him. We could let him go, if you want that, or we could send in B-52 bombers and level the town, or we could send in an American James Bond, licensed to kill, and eliminate him.

Look, there were assassination plots against Hitler. You may disagree. I wish they had succeeded. The Americans Admiral Yamamoto out of the sky, the architect at Pearl Harbor. This is something we have to be prepared to do when necessary, not frivolously and not promiscuously, but sometimes, and for you To compare to us to Iraq and mass murders, Bob, that's what obscene.

ZAHN: Let me ask you that, Bob -- would you have supported assassinating Hitler?

BECKEL: Oh, sure I would have.

MAY: Well, there you go.

ZAHN: Why is Osama Bin Laden any different?

BECKEL: Wait a second. Wait a second. It's always nice when conservatives bring out the three biggest names in the history of atrocities.

MAY: How about Osama bin Laden?

BECKEL: Wait a second.

MAY: How about Osama bin Laden?

BECKEL: If you get around Osama bin Laden, you can either arrest him or shoot him, I don't care.

MAY: That's what we are talking about. You agree on Osama bin Laden?

BECKEL: Wait, wait.

MAY: You agree on Osama bin Laden.

BECKEL: Let me ask you this.

It's the Christmas season, now Let's take it easy, all right?

MAY: Merry Christmas to you, ho-ho.

BECKEL: I don't know, you want talk about what's going on right now. Did you, Cliff, agree -- you're a historian -- did you agree that the CIA should have participated in the murder of Allende (ph) in Chile, a duly-elected official, why, because we didn't like him? He was a socialist. Now we are going back to the days when you allow CIA agents on the ground supporting puppet right wing regimes to knock people off. It's a lot different.

MAY: Nobody's talking about that. We're talking about Osama bin Laden. We're talking about...


MAY: Listen, Bob, that's not what we are talking to me.

ZAHN: Hang on. Let me make a little timeout so you guys don't talk over each other.

OK, you finish your thought about Allende and why that's not the same thing that we're talking about, Cliff.

MAY: Yes, what we're talking about is a bomb maker, or we're talking about somebody dealing with anthrax in a laboratory, somebody who we know is going to -- we have to do more than punish terrorism; we have to prevent terrorism. One way we do that is we allow the covert services, carefully monitor at times, to have the option of eliminating those who intend to kill thousands of Americans. The government's basic job, Bob, is to protect American citizens right now from terrorism. We're in a war on terrorism. The terrorist are combatants. They just don't wear uniforms. We have to treat them like combatants. We are not to treat them like they are juvenile delinquents, and that's different from targeting leaders in foreign countries, got it?

BECKEL: Cliff, no. I don't have it, my friend. I'm sorry. I know you're obviously you're an educated man.

But if you would simply answer my question?

MAY: What is that?

BECKEL: Osama bin Laden, there is plenty of evidence that Osama bin Laden is responsible for what happened.

MAY: Yes.

BECKEL: Would you go back historically, if your mind can you take you back before Ronald Reagan, and remember when we participated in the murder of duly-elected officials who were doing no damage to Americans, and yet that was fine, because we wanted to control that in America.

MAY: Let's agree.

BECKEL: And that would mean we have the support of a bunch of dictators and thugs, but, Cliff, if you have a policy. This policy -- excuse me, Cliff, we're not supposed to talk over each other, right?

MAY: I want answers.

BECKEL: Tis the season to be jolly.

The idea of doing away with -- allowing people to do assassinations is not just for bin Laden. It is not just for one or two terrorist. It is a policy. That policy then gets dictated by people who may or may not have the same political agenda you or I do.

ZAHN: All right, Cliff, it's your turn.

MAY: Can we agree that we can use this policy for terrorist who are organizing attempts to kill loads of Americans? Look, the Israelis don't kill Arafat, as frustrated as they are with him, and they know he has endorsed terrorism and there are terrorists working for him, but they do target those who are building bombs to use against Israeli citizens. That is justified in Israel. It is justified if the United States does it well. Never mind duly elected leaders, Bob, let's talk about terrorist and those who mastermind terrorism. Do you agree we can we use assassination on them, just them?


MAY: Why not?

BECKEL: Because I believe it's putting in the hands of one person, and God never intended one person to be judge or jury. You keeping talking Osama bin Laden, there are other people. Remember, John Ashcroft, who forget to take a constitutional law class in law school, rounded up 5,000 people in Detroit. They've been putting people in jails, and then 32 days later, they find out they haven't done anything.

ZAHN: That's not a fair characterization of what happened of 5,000...

BECKEL: Oh, it isn't?

MAY: Let me tell you two things, Bob. One, the Constitution is not a suicide pact. I didn't say that, a Supreme Court justice did. Second, Ashcroft has put a lot of people in detention and questioned them, and that's probably the reason why all the sleeper cells, all the terrorist we have in this country have not been able to stage another attack since September 11th. You want to release all the suspects, because you think their -- I worry about innocent Americans.

BECKEL: I heard that rap about all of a sudden Ashcroft has stopped all these attacks. The last one I remember was in Oklahoma City, that was several years ago. You name me another one that's happened, and I see Ashcroft -- I should feel safe at night because Ashcroft my attorney general. I much worry about knocks on my door in the middle of the night because of Ashcroft.


ZAHN: Hey, Bob, will you do me a favor before a I let you go this morning if you thought it would have been OK for the U.S. to assassinate Hitler why it's not OK to assassinate Osama bin Laden. BECKEL: Because I think there a compelling interest in stopping both bin Laden and Hitler because there was irrefutable evidence that if they were not eliminated, then more people would die. I think that's a legitimate argument. Now right around the corner, down from where I live, a fellow name Ronnie Mafiat (ph) was blown up, with the assistance of the United States government, because he didn't get along with the right wing powers that be in South America when we continue to support people who murder people? You guys like that, because that was in our interest. Well, the fact of the matter is...

MAY: Would you like to say...

ZAHN: Cliff, I need six-second closing. Commercial is going to take us right off the air.

MAY: Yes or no, would you like Ashcroft to release everybody he has in detention right now, would you urge that?

BECKEL: I would like to have him give everybody an attorney and release about 90 percent of them, which is about the number of people who are just -- people who are working in America every day, trying to do their job, and this guy is rounding them up. And, Cliff, 10 years from now, there won't be an Osama bin Laden, but you'll still have the right to murder people in the streets, and the went the way of the OK corral. I know you conservatives are frozen in the '50s buddy, but let me tell you, there is no Cold War,. and we shouldn't be allowed to kill people.

MAY: The terrorist are our enemies and John Ashcroft is not. Kumbaya and merry Christmas to you.

BECKEL: How do you know all these people are enemies? You don't that's the difference. They've got a different name than you guys do, and that's the problem.


ZAHN: All right, gentlemen. Leave it there this morning. No, no, no, We have to cut, cut, cut, running out of time.

Bob Beckel, Cliff May. Wind those guys up, they don't stop.

BECKEL: Very happy holidays. Cliff, I've got a present coming for you, Cliff.

MAY: I look forward to it. I'll have one for you.

ZAHN: Can you just imagine what Christmas gift is going to be.

Thanks, gentelemen.