Licensed to Kill

By Kornbluh, Peter | The Nation, June 16, 1997 | Go to article overview

Licensed to Kill


Kornbluh, Peter, The Nation


"The simplest local tools are often much the most efficient means of assassination," counsels a C.I.A. study on the subject written in the fifties. "A hammer, axe, wrench, screw driver, fire poker, kitchen knife, lamp stand, or anything hard, heavy and handy will suffice." For an assassin using "edge weapons," the manual notes in cold clinical terms, "puncture wounds of the body cavity may not be reliable unless the heart is reached.... Absolute reliability is obtained by severing the spinal cord in the cervical region."

This instructional guide in the fine art of political murder, found among the training files of the C.I.A.'s covert "Operation PBSUCCESS," was one of several hundred records released by the agency on its involvement in the infamous 1954 coup in Guatemala. After years of answering Freedom of Information Act requests with its standard "We can neither confirm nor deny...," the C.I.A. has declassified about 1,400 pages of some 180,000 estimated to be in its secret archives on the Guatemalan destabilization program. (The agency's press release stated that more records would be made public before the end of the year.) The small, albeit dramatic, release comes more than five years after then-Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates declared that the agency would "open" its shadowy past to post-cold war public scrutiny, and only days after a member of the C.I.A.'s own historical review panel called its commitment to openness "a brilliant public relations snow job."

It is not hard to see why the agency's Directorate of Operations opposed the decision of the C.I.A.'s historical staff to declassify the documents. Despite the agency's rationalization of these operations as taking place "in a historical era quite different from the present," forty-three years later they remain a stark chronicle of criminal intent in the guise of national security.

Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was democratically elected president of Guatemala in 1950 to continue socioeconomic reforms that the C.I.A. disdainfully refers to in a memorandum as "an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the `Banana Republic.'" The first C. …

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