The Rush To Judgment
Pretty much every news outlet has confirmed that the secret CIA program held from Congress by Dick Cheney concerned targeted assassinations of Al Qaeda members abroad, basically the "executive assassination ring" discussed by Sy Hersh earlier this year.
Dick Cheney, the former vice president, ordered a highly classified CIA operation hidden from Congress because it pushed the limits of legality by planning to assassinate al-Qaida operatives in friendly countries without the knowledge of their governments, according to former intelligence officials.
Former counter-terrorism officials who retain close links to the intelligence community say that the hidden operation involved plans by the CIA and the military to launch operations, similar to those by Israel's Mossad intelligence service, to hunt down and kill al-Qaida activists abroad without informing the governments concerned, even though some were regarded as friendly if unreliable.
The CIA apparently did not put the plan in to operation but the US military did, carrying out several assassinations including one in Kenya that proved to be a severe embarrassment and helped lead to the quashing of the programme.
I'd like to know more about that Kenya incident. Put it this way, when 15 year-old kids who committed no crime other than being valuable to an Afghan warlord seeking a bounty ended up at Guantanamo, I can only imagine what the fever dreams of Dick Cheney led to out in the world.
But something's not right here. Targeted assassinations of heads of state are illegal, President Ford signed that in 1975. But Peter Bergen explains that we have had assassination policies on Al Qaeda since before 9-11 and after.
Peter Bergen, a senior security analyst at the New America Foundation, said that the secret operation must have gone further than that to have created such a backlash in Congress: "If it's an assassination programme of al-Qaida leaders that is hardly surprising. Clinton had an assassination programme against bin Laden. There have been 27 drone missile strikes against al-Qaida alone this year."
It could be the case that Congress is merely upset about not being properly informed, also a crime under the National Security Act of 1947, and not the contents of the program. But two things stick out. It's completely unclear why this action, out of all the others, would be hid by the Bush Administration from Congress. Most terror policies were justified under the concept that we were at war with Al Qaeda, and the executive has broad discretion to carry out the policies he sees fit to protect the nation. I don't agree with the expansiveness of that view, but this kind of assassination ring would fall squarely inside that construct, no? Why would the Bush White House not be afraid to argue that we can torture suspects in the war on terror but terrified to explain that we can take out Al Qaeda safe houses with targeted strikes, the way that the Clinton Administration clearly did in the past? Why would it be so radioactive that Leon Panetta couldn't hear about it for six months after being made CIA Director?
The second thing that bothers me about this is the lightning quickness with which the program has been explained to the press, mostly through unnamed sources. You'd almost think that some members of the Bush Administration wanted to convince the public that their secret program only dealt with killing bad guys. And when I say some members, I mean Dick Cheney.
Bobby Ghosh at TIME has some different information:
But two former ranking CIA officials have told TIME that there's another equally plausible possibility: The program could have required the Agency to spy on Americans. Domestic surveillance is outside the CIA's purview -– it's usually the FBI's job – and it's easy to see why Cheney would have wanted to keep it from Congress.
Both officials say they were never told what was in the program, and that they're only making calculated guesses. But their theory gibes with other reports, quoting ex-CIA officials, that say the program had to do with intelligence collection, not assassinations.
“People may want this to be about hit squads bumping off shady Saudis in Geneva, but that's very unlikely,” says one official. “More likely, it was a plan to spy on some suspicious American citizens or organizations, without telling the FBI.”
A third CIA official who is familiar with details of the program says it was deemed unworkable and cancelled in 2004. It is not clear when or why the program was revived as a possibility, but it never got very far from the drawing board, as Republican Congressmen who received a confidential briefing about it by CIA Director Leon Panetta said.
The Cheney Administration ran so many secret programs that only him and David Addington, in all likelihood, know which program corresponds to which set of briefings or lack of disclosure from Congress. In fact the Inspector General report stated that the wiretapping program had little effectiveness precisely because of all the secrecy. So when every newspaper in the world reports about targeted assassinations within a day of the disclosure of some secret program hid by Cheney, I'm immediately dubious of the information, or rather the disinformation.
One thing is clear - there are potentially tons of unturned out there, unbeknownst to the President and his staff, and these landmines can detonate at really any time, throwing the White House off track. They might want to send in a special prosecutor simply to defuse them.