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Superspies live only in fiction

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PROVO — The American spy dangles silently on a rope suspended from the ceiling of a bedroom in a Baghdad palace.

Positioned well above the literally king-size bed, he carefully reaches into his backpack and pulls out a gadget that measures the known facial features of Saddam Hussein.

The black-clad secret agent then efficiently exercises his license to kill.

Later, after a harrowing escape, the operative downloads an e-mail on his PDA. He learns his handiwork is being celebrated by Iraqis and Kurds alike. A war that would have threatened the lives of American soldiers and the fragile peace in the region is averted . . . .

Whoa now, hold on a minute.

This silver-screen scenario produces a tidy end to a complicated international crisis, but it's pure fantasy, according to Stan Taylor, a BYU political science professor.

Taylor says it's unrealistic to talk about sending a 007-style agent to take out Saddam.

First, the United States doesn't have an equivalent to James Bond or a "Mission: Impossible" superspy like Ethan Hunt.

For one thing, "I never knew an intelligence case officer who carried a gun," said Taylor, who once held the highest possible clearances for classified information. "The American public just doesn't know what's going on, and it's because of movies like 'Mission: Impossible.' "

Also, assassinations are against the law. Taylor should know — he helped draft the executive order prohibiting them while working for a U.S. Senate committee in 1976.

Since then, a president can OK an assassination, but only with a written order.

While it's true that presidential findings have removed Saddam from protection under the law, Taylor said, if the CIA has assets on the ground in Iraq today, it's more likely they are selecting targets for the first moments of a war than infiltrating heavily guarded palaces.

In fact, Taylor said most intelligence work lacks heart-pounding drama — which is why movies and novels get it wrong. Most of the truth makes for dull storytelling.

Taylor's staff work in the Senate — he took a sabbatical from BYU political science classes — put him in a position to learn about all the covert action undertaken by U.S. intelligence agencies after the work of the Church Committee in 1976 mandated Senate oversight of the CIA.

"Only two senators and one staff member got to sit on the meetings," Taylor said. "I would just literally salivate, wishing I were in there. I could just imagine all those wild things they had talked about and done. Then I got a chance to be the staff member in the meetings. The anticipation felt like the first Christmas you can remember."

But his first meeting consisted of mundane items like providing $1,000 to a Chilean scholar writing a book favorable to the United States.

"I didn't hear of any sex, violence or mayhem," Taylor said. "I don't know if my six months in the job were representative. I'm sure they weren't. But that's all I ever heard."

While the U.S. government has been involved in covert activities that overthrew governments in China, Iran, Guatemala and Indonesia, failed coups in Cuba and elsewhere have been embarrassing and harmful. Even the successes have been known to backfire in the long run.

"One wonders at the lasting taste left in the mouth because these activities do come to light," Taylor said.

His pragmatic concerns about covert action don't affect his assessment of the value of America's intelligence agencies.

"Intelligence functions are critical," Taylor said. "They do not need to be what we see in the movies. These agencies collect information and analyze it so foreign policy decisions are made on an informed basis and not on speculation."

Although he has taken a lot of heat for his stand against assassinations, Taylor doesn't apologize. "It's unseemly," he said. "Even worse than the dubious morality, it isn't prudent."

Still, he thinks U.S. law is on solid footing.

"I'm OK with the idea that we only carry out assassinations if there is a written presidential finding," he said. "What we don't want is rogue elephant actions taken by intelligence groups."

In fact, if the real-life equivalent of James Bond or Ethan Hunt got close enough to the Iraqi president, he doesn't absolutely rule out the value of removing him.

"It's something I would not criticize in principle," he said, "but I would have to have a lot more facts to make a serious judgment about it."

E-MAIL: twalch@desnews.com