Journalist Seymour Hersh sparked my interest in military law in May 1970 when I picked up a copy of Harper’s and read his article entitled “My Lai 4: A report on the massacre and its aftermath.” Nearly 40 years later, he’s still on the beat. Yesterday, in an appearance at the University of Minnesota, journalist Seymour Hersh claimed that the Bush Administration had adopted a policy authorizing the use of summary executions of adversaries as one of its tools, and that the operation reported to Dick Cheney. (You’ll recall that in TV appearances in the months after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney talked about the need to practice the “black arts” and to reach out to the “dark side” in battling the nation’s terrorist adversaries.) Eric Black reports Hersh’s remarks at the MinnPost:
After 9/11, I haven’t written about this yet, but the Central Intelligence Agency was very deeply involved in domestic activities against people they thought to be enemies of the state. Without any legal authority for it. They haven’t been called on it yet. That does happen. Right now, today, there was a story in the New York Times that if you read it carefully mentioned something known as the Joint Special Operations Command — JSOC it’s called. It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. They did not report to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff or to Mr. [Robert] Gates, the secretary of defense. They reported directly to him. …
Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on. Just today in the Times there was a story that its leaders, a three star admiral named [William H.] McRaven, ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths. Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us. It’s complicated because the guys doing it are not murderers, and yet they are committing what we would normally call murder. It’s a very complicated issue. Because they are young men that went into the Special Forces. The Delta Forces you’ve heard about. Navy Seal teams. Highly specialized. In many cases, they were the best and the brightest. Really, no exaggerations. Really fine guys that went in to do the kind of necessary jobs that they think you need to do to protect America. And then they find themselves torturing people.
I’ve had people say to me — five years ago, I had one say: ‘What do you call it when you interrogate somebody and you leave them bleeding and they don’t get any medical committee and two days later he dies. Is that murder? What happens if I get before a committee?’ But they’re not gonna get before a committee.
The practice of targeted killings is controlled by Executive Order 12333, issued by President Reagan in 1981, which provides “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” There are two exceptions to this rule. One is that as a basic principle of the law of armed combat, it is permitted to strike against the command-and-control apparatus (including both political and military leaders) of a hostile force in connection with armed conflict. The other is that the President may, by special action, authorize such an operation. The operation that Hersh describes almost certainly would have required a presidential finding which concluded that it was in the nation’s national security interest, and authorized the operation to go forward. Hersh suggests that the entire process was delegated to the Vice President, however, which may have required a more extensive modification of E.O. 12333. President Bush issued a complete revamping of EO 12333 on July 30, 2008—and he directed that the details of his revision be withheld from the public. The publicly disclosed text of Bush’s action in 2008 focus on a structural reorganization, bolstering the authority of the intelligence czar, largely at the expense of the director of central intelligence. There has been continuous speculation that Bush also made changes in the operational guidelines on this occasion, or perhaps in an earlier secret order or finding.