No Comment — March 31, 2009, 7:21 am

Cheney’s Snuff Squad

In the course of a recent college event, Sy Hersh made waves by talking about a targeted killings program operated by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) which he said was being directed out of the White House by Vice President Cheney. Here’s the way he summarized it yesterday in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer:

I know for sure… the idea that we have a unit that goes around, without reporting to Congress… and has authority from the President to go into the country without telling the CIA station chief or the ambassador and whack somebody. … You’ve delegated authority to troops in the field to hit people on the basis of whatever intelligence they think is good.

Later in the day, CNN interviewed Cheney’s former national security adviser John Hannah. He started his response by saying that Hersh’s account was “certainly not true.” But this denial, it soon became apparent, rested on a semantic quibble. In fact, Hannah confirmed the existence of the targeted killings program:

There’s clearly a group of people that go through a very extremely well-vetted process, interagency process… that have committed acts of war against the United States, who are at war with the United States or are suspected of planning operations of war against the United States, who authority is given to our troops in the field in certain war theaters to capture or kill those individuals. That is certainly true.

Hannah’s response requires a little bit of unpacking. In the coded language of the Bush Administration, “war theaters” could mean O’Hare Airport in Chicago, a downtown shopping street in Milan, a mountain top in Macedonia or a fishing village in Gambia—in other words, anywhere. And persons who are “at war with the United States” and have committed “acts of war” against the United States can include people who speak critically of the Bush Administration in the media or who are linked directly or indirectly to any organization that the Bush Administration decides to label “terrorist.” To take a classic example the Bush Administration used in a court case, a little old lady in Zurich who makes a donation to a charity, not knowing that the charity is funding a hospital project in Palestine that is connected with Hamas, can be deemed a “terrorist.” After these understandings have been plugged in, the differences between the Hersh description of the Cheney snuff program and Hannah’s description pretty much vanish.

As Barry Eisler notes in our interview today, the Hersh account is anything but fanciful. An assassinations program certainly exists. Eisler puts it at the heart of his current thriller. I have yet to encounter anyone in the intelligence community who denies the existence of this program, off the record. There are a number of accounts of it in the mainstream media. In addition to the New York Times story that Eisler mentions, look at Michael Hirsh and John Barry’s January 9, 2005 Newsweek story entitled “The Salvador Option.” It deals with the same JSOC operation that Hersh describes, putting it in the context of a specific targeted killings program in Iraq. The objective of the program is to quietly “take out” figures deemed a threat in the Iraq war effort.

In the immediate context of a war and in a theater of intense military operations where terrorist acts are commonplace, such a program may be very difficult to detect. It may also be easier to justify under the laws of war. Removed from such a setting, however, it becomes much more troubling. The key question would be who the Cheney snuff program targeted—how the targets were selected, why and where they were located. This is something Congressional intelligence committees should be aware of, but Hersh tells us they were kept in the dark. As Hersh suggests, this is a very big deal—it is Dick Cheney running a semi-private assassination squad. The program is, as former White House counsel John Dean notes, possibly a criminal operation, depending on the specifics of how it is run and the nature of the approvals obtained. Does anyone at this point really think it is beyond Dick Cheney to do such a thing? The Dick Cheney who introduced the infamous torture program? The Dick Cheney who bullied through a warrantless surveillance program which sifted through the communications of millions of Americans? Why not a snuff program, too?

President Ford outlawed just the program that Hersh describes when he issued the forerunner of Executive Order 12333. It has long been whispered in intelligence circles that George W. Bush turned Ford’s prohibition on assassinations into a dead letter. It’s time now for this aspect of the Bush legacy to be exposed. Did Bush give specific authorization to an assassinations program? And what was done pursuant to this authority?

Whatever advantages such a program may offer in tactical counterterrorism operations, the downside is also clear. What would happen if major powers around the world adopted the same stance that Bush adopted and sent hit squads abroad to “take out” their enemies of choice?

That day may be dawning. Yesterday brought news of the assassination of a refugee Chechen leader in Dubai, who was long thought to be a target of the Kremlin. The United States will not be able to complain too loudly about this. After all, if George W. Bush can have an assassinations program, so can Vladimir Putin. Indeed, so can any world leader. Welcome to the lawless world of Dick Cheney. Doesn’t it make you feel safer already?

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