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How the Justice Department foils assassination plots in the U.S.


Foreign agents plotting political assassinations in the U.S. I mean, that sounds like the stuff of Hollywood movies, right? But in the past 18 months, the Justice Department says it has foiled four assassination plots on American soil. So the question is, is this a dangerous new normal, or have foreign operatives always been quietly executing perceived enemies in this country? NPR's Ryan Lucas reports.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: A handful of state-sponsored assassinations in the past 20 years have grabbed international headlines. Alexander Litvinenko's poisoning by Russian operatives in London in 2006 and the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul by Saudi agents are but two examples. Neither of those, of course, took place in the United States. But in the past few years, there have been plots aplenty on U.S. soil, starting with one by Iran to assassinate former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton.


MATT OLSEN: This is an especially appalling example of the government of Iran perpetrating egregious acts of transnational violence, in violation of U.S. laws and our national sovereignty.

LUCAS: That's Matt Olsen, the head of the Justice Department's National Security Division, announcing charges in the case in 2022. According to the Justice Department, Iran also had a hand in two other recent assassination plots - one targeting an Iranian American writer and activist in New York, and the other targeting a couple in Maryland. But it's not just Iran. Late last year, the Justice Department said it had foiled a plot directed by an Indian government official to kill a U.S. citizen in New York City. What made that alleged plot so shocking is that India is an American ally and fellow democracy. It seems especially brazen for a U.S. ally to take such a step. But back during the Cold War, some American allies were doing just that. One of them was Chile's General Augusto Pinochet. In 1976, Chilean intelligence operatives killed a former ambassador, Orlando Letelier, and his American colleague Ronni Moffitt in a car bombing in Washington, D.C.

MICHAEL GLENNON: When a bomb goes off in a car in the rush hour on Sheridan Circle on Mass Ave in the middle of Embassy Row and shatters the windows for a block round, that's a big deal in Washington.

LUCAS: Michael Glennon is a law professor at Tufts University, but at the time of the bombing, he was a young attorney working for the Senate. Letelier's assassination helped spark a Senate investigation - that Glennon oversaw - into the activities of foreign intelligence agencies in the United States. Glennon says the investigation received reports from foreigners in the U.S. that they were under surveillance or being harassed or even targeted for assassination by foreign intelligence services. But actual assassinations of U.S. residents, he says, were extremely rare.

GLENNON: The Letelier assassination was an anomaly. These foreign intelligence agencies, including the Soviets, I might add, stopped at the line of assassination. That was verboten.

LUCAS: But some countries that did cross that line were allies. Five years after the Letelier bombing, two union organizers in Seattle were murdered inside their local union office. A U.S. court later found Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda liable for the murders. The killings were said to be in retaliation for the men's anti-Marcos organizing. And in 1984, a Chinese American named Henry Liu was gunned down in the garage of his home in Daly City, Calif. Members of a Taiwanese criminal gang, acting at the behest of Taiwan's military intelligence, were convicted of the murder.

GLENNON: The friendly foreign intelligence agencies recognized that it was the hostiles that the United States was concerned about.

LUCAS: That meant that U.S. allies were not under close scrutiny, and they knew it. But that was the good old days of the Cold War. And it raises the question, have state-sponsored assassinations become more common since then?

RORY CORMAC: It's very difficult to know.

LUCAS: Rory Cormac is a professor at the University of Nottingham who studies secret statecraft.

CORMAC: It certainly feels like we are seeing more because they are brazen and because the Americans are more willing to expose publicly this activity.

LUCAS: He says a couple of factors are likely contributing to the apparent increase in these sorts of plots.

CORMAC: I think the landscape is changing, and the norms against this are eroding. And that is seeing - more actors feeling like they can get away with it.

LUCAS: He also points to the spread of armed drones. The U.S. has used armed drones for more than a decade to target suspected terrorists around the world. It justifies its actions as self-defense in response to an imminent threat. But critics accused the U.S. of hypocrisy. And Cormac says they point to the 2020 American drone strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani as a prime example.

CORMAC: They'll see that as, you know, another nail in the coffin of taboos against assassinations and targeted killings.

LUCAS: Countries aren't using drones to target perceived enemies in the U.S., of course, and none of the recent plots in the U.S. has succeeded. But that doesn't mean that foreign powers - adversaries or allies - won't keep trying. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.