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

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).

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

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:

“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?

Comments (14)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/31/2009 - 11:58 am.

    There’s a word for what the Bushites have done to logic and the language regarding torture: Sophistry. Bush and his buddies tortured hundreds, maybe thousands of people; if other countries did to captured Americans what we have done to them there would be an incalculable cry for justice and vengeance in this country. We demand others blood but ignore our own crimes.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/31/2009 - 12:30 pm.

    I’ve got a question in answer to Eric’s question:

    Suppose the same exact process of identifying targets and dispatching hit squads across international borders, as described by both its proponents and opponents above, were undertaken by other governments. Pick a government, any government – suppose it’s the Germans, the Swedes, the Israelis, the Syrians, the Swiss, or the Iranians. Suppose they offer the familiar rationalizations that “we’re at war, and war isn’t pretty”, and “don’t worry – we go through a thorough vetting process, so in our opinion everyone on the list deserves it”.

    Are we ready to accept, even condone, all these governments’ hit squads roaming across the world’s borders to kill the people on their lists?

    I hardly think most Americans would embrace this as a good idea.

    Is our case different because it’s US?

  3. Submitted by Paul Linnee on 03/31/2009 - 12:46 pm.

    Eric (and others) I too was at the U of M event in early March which Eric reported here, and was interested to listen to Hersch on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross on Monday, 3/30. Its about 40 minutes long and is a good interview. Go here:

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/31/2009 - 12:54 pm.

    An assassination squad that targets not just those who have attacked the U.S. but those who are SUSPECTED of plotting such an action would seem a very Cheney-like war to conduct the War on Terror. I would imagine he created it during the time he set up his own intelligence group because he didn’t like what the normal channels had to tell him. (Not enough to the Dark Side?)

    The War on Terror, after all, was used to “justify” our illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq and the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis while we were searching for and killing terrorists. Many who were not killed, of course, ended up in Guantanamo.

    I believe the acceptable number of collateral damage deaths was 15 regular folks to any one terrorist killed, although that may be the ratio in Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than Iraq. We have now also killed hundreds of innocent Afghanis and Pakistanis in our zeal to get bad guys. (Did I hear this morning that Obama is ending the drone attacks in Pakistan? Hope so.)

    Is it not time to end this misbegotten War That Kills People While Increasing Terrorism?

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/31/2009 - 01:39 pm.

    I might add that not only have we put our own soldiers in grave danger, but the rest of the world has basically been given license to torture. Congratulations, Bush Administration, for coarsening the entire global population and setting back civilization five hundred years.

  6. Submitted by Dan Frank on 03/31/2009 - 01:53 pm.

    Some things never change, I was in Army Special Forces in the early 70’s and we routinely practiced assasinations as part of generally accepted and practiced counterinsurgency tactics. Under todays more ruthless terrorist conditions I am not surprised to hear it is still considered as an option in these cases. It’s a nasty world out there! Of course sometimes the wolf gets the wrong sheep and that is a bad outcome.

  7. Submitted by John E Iacono on 03/31/2009 - 04:40 pm.

    Wasn’t it “capture or kill”?

    Sounds like the FBI “10 most wanted list” to me.

    I don’t see a problem with having a list of those known to have committed crimes and seen as a threat to public safety — and even with putting a price on their heads. The old “Reward” posters.

    But I also don’t see why one would have to be secretive about the list. Would not want it to list local political opponents, for instance.

    I suspect, however, that all these persons have been listed to police authorities, to Interpol, to foreign allies, and to anyone else who could possibly assist in capturing them. If so, I see no problem with going after them.

    I would be reluctant, on the other hand, to hand the list over to politicians or journalists who cannot help to capture them, and who typically care less about risking peoples’ lives if they can score a political point or journalistic coup by doing so.

    I doubt Israel’s Mossad publishes its hit list to anyone, though. I also doubt anyone on it is unaware Mossad is out to get him/her. And I think this is true of our hit list as well.

    Bottom line: if this list is known to those who could help capture or kill these listed enemies, (as opposed to politicians or journalists), I have no problem with having it and pursuing them. If they have to be killed because they cannot be captured, I can live with that.

  8. Submitted by Joe Musich on 04/01/2009 - 07:06 am.

    The most illustrious Mr Hersch was also on Fresh Air radio this week saying pretty much the same thing as what was on CNN. Without splittin hairs however the question that did come up is What was this stuff doing being run out of Chaney’s office ? This is a constututional question that needs an answer. The office does not and should not have this authority that is the biggest of the legal problems facing us in this situation that needs to be delt with. I would REALLY sugget a listen to Freah Air. Here’s the link if you dare :

    It’s not the Wolf Blitzer ram it down your throat newsreporting but a nice even exchange between two highly verbal and deep thinking people.

  9. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 04/01/2009 - 10:39 am.

    Assassins are the fungus among us:

    We’ve been training them at “The School Of the Americas”(the assassins academy of fine arts )for years, to control Latin America, our southern neighbors. But a wiser, more independant South America is building itself up again; controling its own elections; it own destiny…free of the bloody fist of former dictatorships and U.S. control.

    Only Columbia still sends its military to be trained in the fine art of torture techniques; auditing the curriculum of assassination. For this the American taxpayer pays the tuition?

    What’s so new to ring bells about in Hersh’s words; Hersh talking about the Cheney gang known as the “assassination ring”?
    Special Operations, Delta Force, Cheney’s gang, are not the local ladies aid society. Power corrupts indeed.

    Cheney is probably the most diabolical V.P. this nation has ever known and like babbling rabble we can only cry “foul!”..that’s all folks.

    We can talk about it but men like Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Rove are out of the limelight maybe, but still chuckling in the shadows.

    We the people are to them, merely engaging in rabble babble…they know the people have no power. We have lots of white space for debate space, to work up a lather about it…but nothing happens. And Cheney keeps on sneering.

    Shouldn’t we be “shovel ready” to indict the scoundreals who have initiated such a grand betrayal of this once respected nation now tolerating such abuse of power, in our name? What a “stimulus package’ that would be.

  10. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/01/2009 - 01:52 pm.

    Beryl J-K: I consider South America the bellwether for a better world to come. Even in Colombia, there is much resistance among ordinary people to the current U.S.-friendly government that kills union organizers and other “enemies” at will. In the early 1990s, The People petitioned, voted for and got a plank in their countries constitution that establishes peace as both a right and a duty.

    One of our problems in America is that we have become so passive. We speak of rights when it comes to peace, but not of duty like the Colombians. This morning, demonstrators in London and all around the world gathered by the hundreds of thousands to protest current policies they find harmful to ordinary people and poor countries. How do they get the word out? And why can’t we/don’t we do the same when we are upset?

  11. Submitted by Donald Petkus on 04/01/2009 - 03:08 pm.

    Yes, indeed the thought that the Cheney or Obama White House could order the military to commit assassinations by blindly following orders is disturbing.

    The discussion so far has ignored the Uniform Code of Military Justice which prohibits military members from carrying out unlawful orders.True, there may be some ambiguity about what is lawful…BUT but all American military members know that the government will not shield them from prosecution. Government attorneys represent the government, not the individuals accused.

    Frankly, any thought that conducting war by the standards of Victorian gentlemen is laughable. We gain no respect or security when we put on kit gloves in a world of street fighters.

  12. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/01/2009 - 03:59 pm.

    Mr. Petkus–
    What we found out at Abu Ghraib is that ‘the government’ will not shield the lowest ranking individuals who personally carry out illegal orders. The government will and has shielded the higher ranking officers who gave those orders. This effectively makes the lowest common denominators in the military the arbiters of foreign policy, with predictable results.
    And of course our current Executive has declined to pursue any war crimes prosecution against members of the previous administration.

    And as far as “standards of Victorian gentlemen” is concerned, read the history of the actions of the British military in the 19th century. Those standards were never very high if they got in the way of extending the British Empire.

  13. Submitted by Robert Stahl on 04/05/2009 - 08:24 pm.

    It seems to me that much of this issue pivots on the somewhat surreal platform of how ‘our pride’ is so self-important as to defend the killing of Osama Bin Laden when the rest is, obviously, just murder. In this ‘business model,’ where even Hersh won’t tread on the issue for fear of being outside some antiquated system, no revision of a sort of symbolic code that is obviously decaying or decayed, maintains a status quo seems to be at the heart of the matter, and is deeply psychologically disturbing. How the efficiency of just getting to the basic, “Is it murder or isn’t it” question at the highest level of ‘leadership,’ or inquiry, indicates something far less effective than what we assume is working properly. It leaves the door open for the Inquisition, or the Tower of Babel. So, the lack of clarity about whether or not it is alright to kill someone, anyone, indiscriminately just beckons for some clues as to what is really going on. For all I know, Bin Laden may be a drug lord that is, or has been working for the CIA, maybe is done in at the moment, and Al Qaeda is just another term originally used for the means that the drug money was laundered throughout the global networking scheme of the electronic money chain, and, despite Moby Dick, we just can’t find the ‘water line’ for any of it. I tend to adhere to clearer thoughts of the day posted by individuals such as Indira Singh and Tommy Tamm.

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