A White House spokesman angrily denied and branded as "interestingly timed" a report Wednesday that intelligence counter-terrorism directives signed by President Reagan in 1984 and 1985 authorized aggressive covert operations that would have circumvented an assassination ban.
Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters that the report in The Washington Post "impugns the president" and Reagan "thinks it's very unfair."The Post story by correspondent Bob Woodward said the directives, called findings, Reagan signed said any operations taken against terrorists would be "deemed" lawful if conducted in "good faith."
The Post said anonymous sources told the newspaper the language in the findings, both rescinded in 1986 and 1987, caused disputes within the government because it was generally considered as "a license to kill."
"This is an old story being rehashed again, interestingly timed," said Fitzwater.
"I think this is an extraordinary cheap shot," he added. "It's not true."
He declined to say what he meant by "interestingly timed," apparently referring to the presidential campaign. "I'll let you decide for yourself," he told reporters, adding, "It isn't fair."
He said Reagan, in December 1983, signed intelligence finding 1233, which prohibits government-sponsored assassinations by anyone.
Fitzwater was unable to explain why the orders were later "totally rescinded" or what was meant by "good faith," which sources quoted in the Post indicated was designed to circumvent the assassination prohibiton.
Key officials in the Reagan administration wanted to undertake pre-emptive operations that might end in killings to combat increasing terrorist activity, sources told the Post. The officials also wanted legal protection from the existing executive order prohibiting the U.S. government from participating in an assassination.
One source told the Post that the language of Reagan's authorizations was specifically designed to "circumvent the assassination ban."