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Hersh assassination squad allegations resurface on CNN, with Cheney aide denials

A few weeks ago I reported investigative reporter Seymour Hersh told a University of Minnesota audience that Dick Cheney had supervised a team of assassins.

Three weeks ago, your humble ink-stained wretch stumbled into a matter of global, legal, historic, covert and overt interest while covering legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh speaking at “Great Conversations” forum at the U of M. It wasn’t my scoop, and I received undeserved credit for it. I was merely in the audience and had a tape running when Hersh pretty much accused Vice President Dick Cheney of supervising a team of assassins.

Yesterday, on CNN, Hersh repeated what he had said at the U (while calling himself “dumb-dumb” for having said it when, where and how he said it).

Two high-ranking former aides to Cheney denied there was anything to it, then proceeded to confirm almost all of Hersh’s key claims. Yes, the Cheney-ites said, the U.S. does compile and maintain a list of names of people, presumably connected to terrorist activities, whom the U.S. is trying to kill, starting with Osama bin Laden. Yes, there are military units who are authorized to kill them. Really, the only issues on which they differ is whether such targeted killings should be called “assassinations,” whether Congress should have oversight over such activites, and whether there is anything wrong with it.

Here is a transcript of the CNN exchange (you have to skip more than halfway down on the transcript, or search for the word “controversial” and you’ll go right to it). And above is a video of the whole CNN piece. (If you look real fast, when they start playing the audio of what Hersh said in Minnesota, you’ll see MinnPost credited on-screen).

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But, for those who are coming in late, here’s how this started

Three weeks ago at the U of M:

Hersh, for mysterious reasons, publicly described a story that he has been reporting, but hadn’t yet published. He alleged, offering no backup except his considerable reputation, that military units under the designation “Joint Special Operations Command” (JSOC ) were entering unnamed foreign countries, assassinating specific individuals, operating without any congressional oversight, without the requirement of a presidential “finding” that is necessary for certain CIA actions (these guys were in the military, not the CIA, but they did not report to the Joint Chiefs or to the secretary of defense, Hersh said).

During the Bush administration, Hersh specified, these teams, which he termed an “executive assassination wing” (my original transcription had it “assassination ring,” Hersh lightly insisted on the wing/ring difference yesterday, while acknowledging that it made no difference) reported directly to Cheney’s office.

If you go back to the original post, you can read the full text of what he said on the subject, which was pretty dramatic stuff, (and there’s even audio of Hersh saying it, so you can decide for yourself whether it was a “ring” or a “wing although I’m ready to concede “wing.”)

The story set off a substantial pixillated storm, especially in such Bush-bashing venues as MSNBC’s “Countdown” with Keith Olbermann. But, as far as I know, Wolf Blitzer’s “Situation Room” of yesterday was the first follow-up to involve both Hersh and spokesters for Cheney.

I give Blitzer and his team full credit for doing so, but if you are seriously interested in knowing what actually happened and deciding what you should think about it, Blitzer barely scratched the surface. It was, after all, just a few minutes of TV time, mooshing together interviews with three people who were talking past each other. Blitzer never pointed out that they basically agreed on the facts of the case.

If you’ll indulge me, I’ll dip a toe in the deep waters over which the two Cheney associates were jumping.

Undeclared war is also hell

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Soldiers, spies and hirelings of the United States kill people, often, in a lot of places, for a variety of reasons. When there’s a war on, killing “the enemy” is pretty much the idea. Each side uses guns, bombs and other weapons to kill enemy soldiers without knowing their names, without any evidence that the particular target has done anything to deserve the death penalty, and we don’t normally call it murder or “assassination.” We call it war.

One problem with applying these rules to the current conflicts in which the U.S. is killing people is that none of the conflicts have been declared wars. Our soldiers have been at sort-of war in Iraq and Afghanistan (surely these are two of the places where Hersh’s “wings” have been active). But they aren’t legally wars and they don’t resemble classic wars where armed people in uniforms shoot to kill armed people in different uniforms across a battlefield.

With that in mind, take a peek at what John Hannah, former national security adviser to Dick Cheney, said when Blitzer said to him:

“You heard what Sy Hersh had to say about your former boss, Dick Cheney, and what he calls this ‘assassination wing,’ an executive assassination wing. Is it true?

HANNAH: It’s not true. And I think you heard in that interview that there was a little walking back from the original claim that was made in the speech that Mr. Hersh made in…[actually, Hersh took nothing back.]

BLITZER: Explain exactly what’s going on in terms of a list. Is there a list of terrorists, suspected terrorists, out there who can be assassinated?

HANNAH: There is — there’s clearly a group of people that go through a very extremely well-vetted process — inter-agency process, as I think was explained in your piece, that have committed acts of war against the United States, who are at war with the United States, or is 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.

In short, Hannah pretty much confirms that what he said was not true was true. Except perhaps he believes that if it happens in the context of a war, it can’t be called “assassination.” And then we are still stuck with the problem that legally there is no war. Classically, a war is an armed conflict between two countries that have declared war on one another. The United States has perhaps declared quasi-war “on,” or maybe we should say “in,” two countries (both of which have for years now been governed by U.S.-installed governments, or, if “installed” is too strong a word for you, at least governments that Washington calls “allies.”) And certainly none of these countries have declared war on the United States. (No government is that stupid.) Plus, in his interview with Blitzer, Hersh said that the assassinations had occurred in at least 12 countries.

The question arises: What is an assassination, as opposed to killing an enemy in a war? The U.S. generally claims that it doesn’t engage in “assassination.”

For starters, it seems that when the people doing the killing have a list of names of those they will kill, you are moving pretty fast down the road from combat killing to assassination. If this is correct, Hannah is again confirming Hersh’s accusation while saying it is “not true.”

The question arises: What about Osama bin Laden? Would you kill him if you could? Would you be happy if the U.S. military found a way to kill him, or would that be too much like an assassination?

Hannah, by the way, was willing to say, about the list of people that troops in certain war theaters have been given authority to kill:

HANNAH: Osama bin Laden and his number two are right at the top of the list.

I guess I would say: Yes, killing bin Laden would be an assassination. It would be better to capture him, try him and, if he’s convicted, execute him. But if he can’t be captured, I’m OK with killing bin Laden, even though it would meet my definition of an assassination. In fact, it would seem morally preferable to kill bin Laden than to kill some poor slob whose only offense was to be drafted into the army of a country that was dumb enough to declare war on the United States, all of which tends to undermine the idea that there’s a bright moral line between killing indiscriminate strangers in combat versus assassinating people whom you have specific reason to know have killed Americans and hope or plan to kill more.

Then Blitzer asked Hannah:

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“And there is about 100 of these suspects out there?”

HANNAH: I don’t want to get into any exact numbers. It is a small group and the point is that it is very, very heavily vetted throughout the inter-agency process…”

I don’t think you can get away from the word “assassination” by arguing that you are trying to do it to a small group. The smallness of the group seems more like assassination than otherwise. By the way, Frances Townsend, another former Cheney National Security aide who is now a CNN “contributor,” took pretty much same line as Hannah: “There is no such squad wandering the Earth. They don’t do this. There is no such thing,” Townsend said. But then added:

“There are individuals who either had a lot of Americans on their hands or are plotting the death and destruction of Americans or American interests around the world and those individuals, the U.S. military and the intelligence services, are given authority to capture or kill them wherever they’re found.”

BLITZER: And who makes the list of targets for the president to sign off on?

TOWNSEND: It’s military, it’s intelligence, it’s law enforcement, the Justice Department, there is a lawyers’ committee of lawyers that look at these sort of issues and so it’s a very rigorous inter-agency across the government.

On this last theme, which also echoes Hannah, Townsend is, to a significant degree, contradicting Hersh. Hersh had portrayed the group as working directly for Cheney’s office, and lacking supervision by the military or the intelligence agencies.

Townsend and Hannah specify that the compilation of the names of individuals suitable for killing (but not for assassination) is compiled by experts at many executive branch agencies working together. They have essentially, without acknowledging that they have confirmed Hersh’s facts, replied that it’s okay, if the killing occurs under a “heavily-vetted inter-agency” process.

Does that make it any more acceptable? I would say yes, maybe, somewhat. Although there are no details offered on how it works, it implies some kind of process involving criteria and facts, as opposed to an arbitrary list drawn up by Dick Cheney and a few of his close cronies.

The idea that the U.S. is trying to kill Osama bin Laden is not very troubling. The idea Dick Cheney had trained killers under his supervision and authority to order them to kill whomever he thought needed killing is beyond troubling. (Hersh, by the way, acknowledged that he didn’t mean to say that “Cheney has an assassination unit, that he says ‘I want to go get somebody.'”) Osama is one thing. We’ve been told by two presidents in a row that the U.S. will kill him if it can, and we know why. But the idea that Dick Cheney and a bunch of unnamed appointee have a list of names, we know not who, that they are sending people to kill, we know not why, by means, we know not what, requires a leap of confidence in the government’s motives and omniscience that many Americans do not share. How much process, and how much accountability, is necessary to make this operation morally, legally or constitutionally justifiable?

Blitzer flatly asked Hersh what was wrong with having a U.S. government list of bad guys it would like to kill, and teams of soldiers whose job it was to kill them. It’s a fair question, and Hersh gave a mixed response (he seems to understand the Osama exception). But he said there was no legal or constitutional basis for such a program and was very troubled that it was done without congressional input or oversight.

Blitzer challenged Hannah on that issue of congressional oversight and Hersh’s claim that there is none and that he has been told this by top members of Congress. Hannah’s non-reply went like this:

“It is extremely hard for me to believe that. I don’t know exactly what the consultations are with the Congress, but it’s hard for me to believe that those committee chairman and the leadership on the Hill involved in intelligence and armed services, if they want to know about these operations, cannot get that information through the Defense Department.”

So, to review, Hersh said certain things are so and Hannah and Townsend said they are not so at all. But when it came down to specifics, Hersh, Hannah and Townsend agreed that there is an official, but secret U.S. government list of people suitable for killing. The list is compiled by executive branch agencies and assigned to military units to carry out the killings. Hersh said that during the Bush-Cheney years, this operation reported to Cheney. The two Cheney aides neither confirmed nor disputed that fact. Hersh said this activity occurs without even small, token congressional oversight. Hannah said he found that hard to believe.

Do you?