Tags: aclu, al-Qaeda, cia assassination, civil liberties, Criminal Justice, democratic party, due process, eric holder, glenn greenwald, judicial review, Obama, presidential power, roger hollander, rule of law, terrorists, war on terror, warrantless eavesdropping
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Roger’s note: declare “war” on something, war on terror, for example, and you then have the absolute right to kill the “enemy” no questions asked. Prior to the so-called war on terror, there had been acts of terrorism for centuries. They were always dealt with via intelligence gathering and other policing techniques, and alleged terrorists prosecuted through he judicial system (albeit with notable examples of abuse, e.g. Sacco and Vanzetti). This made sense. The ultimate purpose of the war on terror today is to militarize civilian authority. Declare war and you have every right to kill whomever you say is the enemy, be it a citizen or a foreigner. The world is a battlefield. By this logic, the president and the CIA should be able to execute anyone they deem active in the phony “war on drugs.” I am surprised that they haven’t … yet. When they declare war on left-wing political comedians, look out Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Tuesday, Mar 6, 2012 4:50 AM 20:09:43 EST, www.salon.com
A new speech by Eric Holder cements Obama’s legacy as the president who pioneered secretive, charge-less executions
Barack Obama and Eric Holder (Credit: Reuters)
In a speech at Northwestern University yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder provided the most detailed explanation yet for why the Obama administration believes it has the authority to secretly target U.S. citizens for execution by the CIA without even charging them with a crime, notifying them of the accusations, or affording them an opportunity to respond, instead condemning them to death without a shred of transparency or judicial oversight. The administration continues to conceal the legal memorandum it obtained to justify these killings, and, as The New York Times‘ Charlie Savage noted, Holder’s “speech contained no footnotes or specific legal citations, and it fell far short of the level of detail contained in the Office of Legal Counsel memo.” But the crux of Holder’s argument as set forth in yesterday’s speech is this:
Some have argued that the president is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of Al Qaeda or associated forces. This is simply not accurate. “Due process” and “judicial process” are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.
When Obama officials (like Bush officials before them) refer to someone “who is a senior operational leader of Al Qaeda or associated forces,” what they mean is this: someone the President has accused and then decreed in secret to be a Terrorist without ever proving it with evidence. The “process” used by the Obama administration to target Americans for execution-by-CIA is, as reported last October by Reuters, as follows:
American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions . . . There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House’s National Security Council . . . Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.
As Leon Panetta recently confirmed, the President makes the ultimate decision as to whether the American will be killed: “[The] President of the United States obviously reviews these cases, reviews the legal justification, and in the end says, go or no go.”
So that is the “process” which Eric Holder yesterday argued constitutes “due process” as required by the Fifth Amendment before the government can deprive of someone of their life: the President and his underlings are your accuser, your judge, your jury and your executioner all wrapped up in one, acting in total secrecy and without your even knowing that he’s accused you and sentenced you to death, and you have no opportunity even to know about, let alone confront and address, his accusations; is that not enough due process for you? At Esquire, Charles Pierce, writing about Holder’s speech, described this best: “a monumental pile of crap that should embarrass every Democrat who ever said an unkind word about John Yoo.”
* * * * *
I’ve obviously written about the Obama assassination program many times before but there are several points worth examining in light of Holder’s speech and the reaction to it:
(1) The willingness of Democrats to embrace and defend this power is especially reprehensible because of how completely, glaringly and obviously at odds it is with everything they loudly claimed to believe during the Bush years. Recall two of the most significant “scandals” of the Bush War on Terror: his asserted power merely to eavesdrop on and detain accused Terrorists without judicial review of any kind. Remember all that? Progressives endlessly accused Bush of Assaulting Our Values and “shredding the Constitution” simply because Bush officials wanted to listen in on and detain suspected Terrorists — not kill them, just eavesdrop on and detain them — without first going to a court and proving they did anything wrong. Yet here is a Democratic administration asserting not merely the right to surveil or detain citizens without charges or judicial review, but to kill them without any of that: a far more extreme, permanent and irreversible act. Yet, with some righteous exceptions, the silence is deafening, or worse.
How can anyone who vocally decried Bush’s mere eavesdropping and detention powers without judicial review possibly justify Obama’s executions without judicial review? How can the former (far more mild powers) have been such an assault on Everything We Stand For while the latter is a tolerable and acceptable assertion of war powers? If Barack Obama has the right to order accused Terrorists executed by the CIA because We’re At War, then surely George Bush had the right to order accused Terrorists eavesdropped on and detained on the same ground.
That the same Party and political faction that endlessly shrieked about Bush’s eavesdropping and detention programs now tolerate Obama’s execution program is one of the most extreme and craven acts of dishonesty we’ve seen in quite some time. By stark contrast, right–wing leaders, pundits and bloggers are being commendably consistent: they cheered for Bush’s due-process-free eavesdropping and detention programs and, based on exactly the same reasoning, they now lavishly praise President Obama for extending that mentality to assassinations.
(2) It isn’t merely the Democratic Party generally and its hordes of adherents who have performed a complete reversal on these issues as of January 20, 2009. It’s also true of Barack Obama and Eric Holder themselves.
Throughout the Bush years, then-Sen. Obama often spoke out so very eloquently about the Vital Importance of Due Process even for accused Terrorists. As but one example, he stood up on the Senate floor and denounced Bush’s Guantanamo detentions on the ground that a “perfectly innocent individual could be held and could not rebut the Government’s case and has no way of proving his innocence.” He spoke of “the terror I would feel if one of my family members were rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to Guantanamo without even getting one chance to ask why they were being held and being able to prove their innocence.” He mocked the right-wing claim “that judicial inquiry is an antique, trivial and dispensable luxury.” He acknowledged that the Government will unavoidably sometimes make mistakes in accusing innocent people of being Terrorists, but then provided the obvious solution: “what is avoidable is refusing to ever allow our legal system to correct these mistakes.” How moving is all that? What a stirring tribute to the urgency of allowing accused Terrorists a day in court before punishing them.
Then we have Eric Holder, who in 2008 gave a speech to the American Constitution Society denouncing Bush’s executive power radicalism and calling for a “public reckoning.” He specifically addressed the right-wing claim that Presidents should be allowed to eavesdrop on accused Terrorists without judicial review in order to Keep Us Safe. In light of what the Attorney General said and justified yesterday, just marvel at what he said back then, a mere three years ago:
To those in the Executive branch who say “just trust us” when it comes to secret and warrantless surveillance of domestic communications I say remember your history. In my lifetime, federal government officials wiretapped, harassed and blackmailed Martin Luther King and other civil rights leader in the name of national security. One of America’s greatest heroes whom today we honor with a national holiday, countless streets, schools and soon a monument in his name, was treated like a criminal by those in our federal government possessed of too much discretion and a warped sense of patriotism. Watergate revealed similar abuses during the Nixon administration.
To recap Barack Obama’s view: it is a form of “terror” for someone to be detained “without even getting one chance to prove their innocence,” but it is good and noble for them to be executed under the same circumstances. To recap Eric Holder’s view: we must not accept when the Bush administration says “just trust us” when it comes to spying on the communications of accused Terrorists, but we must accept when the Obama administration says “just trust us” when it comes to targeting our fellow citizens for execution. As it turns out, it’s not 9/11/01 that Changed Everything. It’s 1/20/09.
(3) The ACLU said yesterday that Holder’s speech “is ultimately a defense of the government’s chillingly broad claimed authority to conduct targeted killings of civilians, including American citizens, far from any battlefield without judicial review or public scrutiny.” The ACLU then added:
Few things are as dangerous to American liberty as the proposition that the government should be able to kill citizens anywhere in the world on the basis of legal standards and evidence that are never submitted to a court, either before or after the fact.
Anyone willing to trust President Obama with the power to secretly declare an American citizen an enemy of the state and order his extrajudicial killing should ask whether they would be willing to trust the next president with that dangerous power.
This is notable for three reasons. First, the ACLU isn’t merely saying this is a bad policy; they are instead pointing out the obvious: that there are “few things as dangerous” as having your own Government assert the right to target citizens for death with no judicial process, yet that’s exactly what the Obama administration is doing with little backlash. Second, the ACLU is challenging progressive defenders of the President to do what none will ever do: explain why they would trust not only Barack Obama, but also Sarah Palin, or Newt Gingrich, or Michele Bachmann, with the power to target U.S. citizens for assassination in secret and with no judicial oversight. Third, that the ACLU is condemning an Obama policy as “as dangerous to American liberty” as a policy can be — also known as: a supreme hallmark of tyranny — demonstrates the huge gulf that has arisen under the Obama presidency between the Democratic Party and the ACLU (a group universally praised by Democrats when a Republican President is in office), though this gulf has been obvious for quite some time.
(4) What’s so striking is how identical Obama officials and their defenders sound when compared to the right-wing legal theorists who justified Bush’s most controversial programs. Even the core justifying slogans are the same: we are at War; the Battlefield is everywhere; Presidents have the right to spy on, detain and kill combatants without court permission; the Executive Branch is the sole organ for war and no courts can interfere in the President’s decisions, etc. I spent years writing about and refuting those legal theories and they are identical to what we hear now. Just consider how similar the two factions sound to one another.
When it came to their War on Terror controversies, Bush officials constantly said back then exactly what Obama officials and defenders say now: we’re only using these powers against Terrorists — The Bad People — not against regular, normal, Good Americans; so if you’re not a Terrorist, you have nothing to worry about. Here’s White House spokesman Trent Duffy in December, 2005, defending Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping program:
This is a limited program. This is not about monitoring phone calls designed to arrange Little League practice or what to bring to a potluck dinner. These are designed to monitor calls from very bad people to very bad people who have a history of blowing up commuter trains, weddings and churches.
Similarly, when George Bush went before the cameras in December, 2005, to proudly admit and defend his warrantless spying program, he assured the nation that this was all justified because it was only aimed at “the international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations.”
Find a defender of Obama’s assassination program and all you’ll hear is exactly the same thing: this is only being directed at The Terrorists like Awlaki, so we don’t need any court review or due process. Here was Holder yesterday: “it is imperative for the government to counter threats posed by senior operational leaders of al Qaeda, and to protect the innocent people whose lives could be lost in their attacks,” and assassination orders are only issued once “the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.”
This is nothing more than an exercise of supremely circular reasoning and question-begging: whether someone is actually a Terrorist can be determined only when the evidence of their guilt is presented and they have an opportunity to respond, just as Holder and Obama said during the Bush years. Government assurances that they’re only targeting Terrorists — whether those assurances issue from Bush or Obama — should reassure nobody: this is always what those who abuse power claim, and it’s precisely why we don’t trust government officials to punish people based on unproven accusations. Here’s what Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, said in order to assuage growing fears of new government eavesdropping powers, as reported by this July 25, 1969 article from Time Magazine:
Mitchell refused to disclose any figures, but he indicated that the number was far lower than most people might think. “Any citizen of this United States who is not involved in some illegal activity,” he added, “has nothing to fear whatsoever.”
We supposedly learned important lessons from the abuses of power of the Nixon administration, and then of the Bush administration: namely, that we don’t trust government officials to exercise power in the dark, with no judicial oversight, with no obligation to prove their accusations. Yet now we hear exactly this same mentality issuing from Obama, his officials and defenders to justify a far more extreme power than either Nixon or Bush dreamed of asserting: he’s only killing The Bad Citizens, so there’s no reason to object!
Here’s a critique I wrote in January, 2006, of the Bush DOJ’s 42-page whitepaper justifying its warrantless eavesdropping on accused Terrorists. Just read that and you’ll see: the essence of the Bush view of the world was that when it comes to war, it is the President who has sole responsibility and power and courts may not review or interfere with what he decides about who is a Terrorist and what should be done to them. The President is the “sole organ for the Nation in foreign affairs,” declared the Bush DOJ, and ”among the President’s most basic constitutional duties is the duty to protect the Nation from armed attack” and thus, “the Constitution gives him all necessary authority to fulfill that responsibility.” Or, as Holder put it yesterday: “The conduct and management of national security operations are core functions of the Executive Branch, as courts have recognized throughout our history” and therefore “the president is [not] required to get permission from a federal court.” One cannot reject the Bush legal worldview invoked to justify those programs while embracing the Obama worldview expressed here — at least not with an iota of intellectual coherence or dignity.
(5) The dubious or outright deceitful legal claims made by Holder are too numerous to chronicle all of them, but there are a couple worth highlighting. He said, for instance, that “the Supreme Court has made clear that the Due Process Clause does not impose one-size-fits-all requirements, but instead mandates procedural safeguards that depend on specific circumstances.” That part is true: in the 2004 case of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration’s argument that it could detain American citizens accused of Terrorism without any process for them to contest the accusations against them, though the Court held that something less than a full-scale trial could satisfy the Due Process clause. But as Marcy Wheeler points out, the Court imposed “due process” requirements that are the exact opposite of what the Obama administration is doing with its assassinations. Said the Court (emphasis added):
It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments that our Nation’s commitment to due process is most severely tested; and it is in those times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad. . . .
We therefore hold that a citizen-detainee seeking to challenge his classification as an enemy combatant must receive notice of the factual basis for his classification, and a fair opportunity to rebut the Government’s factual assertions before a neutral decisionmaker. . . .
In sum, while the full protections that accompany challenges to detentions in other settings may prove unworkable and inappropriate in the enemy-combatant setting, the threats to military operations posed by a basic system of independent review are not so weighty as to trump a citizen’s core rights to challenge meaningfully the Government’s case and to be heard by an impartial adjudicator.
How can Eric Holder possibly cite the Supreme Court’s Due Process holdings in the War on Terror context when the Court has held that citizens — merely to be detained, let alone killed — are entitled to exactly that which the Obama administration refuses to provide: “a fair opportunity to rebut the Government’s factual assertions before a neutral decisionmaker” and “a citizen’s core rights to challenge meaningfully the Government’s case and to be heard by an impartial adjudicator”? It’s precisely because Obama refuses to fulfill those Court-imposed obligations before ordering citizens executed that this behavior is so objectionable.
If, as Holder argues, the Due Process Clause allows a citizen to be killed based on accusations by the President that are made in total secrecy and which he has no opportunity even to hear, let alone refute, then that core Constitutional safeguard is completely meaningless. And the Supreme Court in the very ruling Holder references leaves no doubt about that, as it required an adversarial hearing before a neutral arbiter even for someone accused of being an “enemy combatant” at the height of the War on Terror.
Then there is Holder’s reliance on the old neocon trick: cite what Lincoln did in the Civil War or what FDR did in World War II — as though those are comparable to the War on Terror — to justify what is being done now. Thus we hear this from Holder: “during World War II, the United States tracked the plane flying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto — the commander of Japanese forces in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway – and shot it down specifically because he was on board.” This argument has been hauled out before by administration officials when responding to my critiques of Obama’s assassination program.
Even leaving aside the vast difference between wars posing an existential threat (the Civil War, WW2) and the so-called War on Terror, the difference between the Yamamoto killing and Obama’s citizen assassinations is self-evident. There was no doubt that Adm. Yamamoto was in fact a commander of an enemy army at war with the U.S.: he wore that army’s uniform and identified himself as such. By contrast, there is substantial doubt whether Anwar Awlaki or other accused Al Qaeda members are in fact guilty of plotting Terrorist attacks on the U.S. That’s true for exactly the reason that Holder, in another part of his speech, explained: Al Qaeda members “do not behave like a traditional military – wearing uniforms, carrying arms openly, or massing forces in preparation for an attack.”
That’s why applying traditional war doctrine to accused Terrorists (who are not found on a battlefield but in their cars, their homes, at work, etc.) is so inappropriate, and why judicial review is so urgent: because the risk of false accusations is so much higher than it is when capturing uniformed soldiers on an actual battlefield. Just recall how dubious so many government accusations of Terrorism turned out to be once federal courts began scrutinizing those accusations for evidentiary support. Indeed, Yemen experts such as Gregory Johnsen have repeatedly pointed out in response to claims that Awlaki plotted Terrorist attacks: “we know very little, precious little when it comes to his operational role” and “we just don’t know this, we suspect it but don’t know it.” Given this shameful record in the War on Terror, what rational person would “trust” the Government to make determinations about who is and is not a Terrorist in the dark, with no limits or checks on what they can do?
(6) Holder’s attempt to justify these assassinations on the ground that “capture is not feasible” achieves nothing. For one, the U.S. never even bothered to indict Awlaki so that he could voluntarily turn himself in or answer the charges (though at one point, long after they first ordered him killed, they “considered” indicting him); instead, they simply killed him without demonstrating there was any evidence to support these accusations. What justifies that? Additionally, the fact that the Government is unable to apprehend and try a criminal does not justify his murder; absent some violent resistance upon capture, the government is not free to simply go around murdering fugitives who have been convicted of nothing. Moreover, that Awlaki could not have been captured in a country where the government is little more than an American client is dubious at best; if the U.S. could locate and enter the home of Osama bin Laden without the cooperation of the Pakistani government, why could it not do the same for Awlaki in Yemen?
But the most important point is that Holder is not confining this assassination power to circumstances where “capture is not feasible.” To the contrary, he specifically said that killing “would be lawful at least in the following circumstances”: meaning that the President’s asserted power is not confined to those conditions. As Charlie Savage wrote: “Significantly, Mr. Holder did not say that such a situation is the only kind in which it would be lawful to kill a citizen. Rather, he said it would be lawful ‘at least’ under those conditions.” We have no idea how far the Obama administration believes its assassination power extends because it refuses to release the legal memorandum justifying it; there is no legal framework governing it; and there is no transparency or accountability for the President’s execution orders.
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In sum, Holder’s attempt to make this all seem normal and common should insult anyone with the most basic understanding of American law. As The New York Times put it when first confirming the assassination program in April, 2010: ” The Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen. . . . It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing, officials said. A former senior legal official in the administration of George W. Bush said he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president.” To date, not a single such citizen has been identified.
As always, the most important point to note for this entire debate is how perverse and warped it is that we’re even having this “debate” at all. It should be self-negating — self-marginalizing — to assert that the President, acting with no checks or transparency, can order American citizens executed far from any battlefield and without any opportunity even to know about, let alone rebut, the accusations. That this policy is being implemented and defended by the very same political party that spent the last decade so vocally and opportunistically objecting to far less extreme powers makes it all the more repellent. That fact also makes it all the more dangerous, because — as one can see — the fact that it is a Democratic President doing it, and Democratic Party officials justifying it, means that it’s much easier to normalize: very few of the Party’s followers, especially in an election year, are willing to make much of a fuss about it at all.
And thus will presidential assassination powers be entrenched as bipartisan consensus for at least a generation. That will undoubtedly be one of the most significant aspects of the Obama legacy. Let no Democrat who is now supportive or even silent be heard to object when the next Republican President exercises this power in ways that they dislike.
Tags: Afghanistan casualties, afghanistan occupation, Afghanistan War, afghnaistan, al-Qaeda, arbitrary executions, assassination, Blackwater, cheney, cia, cia assassination, cia contractor, cia targets, civilian deaths, congress, congressional democrats, democrats, drone attacks, drone missiles, erik prince, extrajudicial executions, extrajudicial killings, Feinstein, hellfire missiles, Iraq, Iraq occupation, Iraq war, leon panetta, mercenaries, roger hollander, summary executions, vanity fair, war, xe, yana kunichoff
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by: Yana Kunichoff, t r u t h o u t | Report
December 4, 2009
The head of Blackwater revealed the details of his collaboration with the CIA to locate and assassinate top al Qaeda operatives as part of a covert antiterror operation Tuesday, and blamed Democrats for the leak that ended the program.
In an article published in Vanity Fair, Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, spoke about the extent of his involvement with the CIA, which ranged from putting together, funding and executing operations to bring personnel into “denied areas” to targeting specific people for assassination who were deemed enemies by the US government.
Prince was one of a secret network of American citizens with special skills or access chosen to help the CIA access targets of interest. The program was kept secret for nearly eight years until it was revealed to lawmakers in a closed session with the House and Senate Intelligence Committee. During this meeting, CIA director Leon E. Panetta named both Prince and Blackwater as major players.
Prince blames Congressional Democrats for the leak. “[W]hen it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under the bus,” he said. “The left complained about how [CIA operative] Valerie Plame’s identity was compromised for political reasons. Well, what happened to me was worse. People acting for political reasons disclosed not only the existence of a very sensitive program but my name along with it.”
According to current and former government officials, former Vice President Dick Cheney told CIA officers in 2002 that they did not need to inform Congress about the program because they were already legally authorized to kill al Qaeda leaders. Under an executive order signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976, the CIA was barred from carrying out assassinations. But President George W. Bush took the position shortly after 9/11 that killing al Qaeda members was comparable to killing enemy soldiers in battle, and therefore assassinations were permissible. Prince was hired in 2004.
A former Navy Seal, Prince said, “I’ve been overtly and covertly serving America since I started in the armed services.” In his role as a contractor for the covert CIA program, according to The New York Times, Prince’s Blackwater employees assembled and loaded Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs onto remotely piloted aircraft – work previously performed by authorized and trained CIA employees.
Prince says he and a team of foreign nationals located a target for assassination in October 2008, but did not complete the job. He alleges two of these trips brought him and his team into Germany and Dubai – without the knowledge of their governments.
He further said that Blackwater resources were never used, but that he used his personal finances and was later reimbursed by the government. Prince has personally spent $45 million to finance a fleet of armored personnel carriers, and according to The Wall Street Journal, Blackwater itself had revenues of more than $600 million in 2008.
Blackwater, now renamed Xe Services for Xenon, the noncombustible gas, was founded in 1997 and has been in Afghanistan since 2002 and Iraq since 2003. In 2004, coalition forces in Baghdad declared private contractors, which included Blackwater employees, immune from Iraqi law.
Largely assigned to act as bodyguards for American diplomats and provide security for military and intelligence stations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Prince’s employees have on more than one occasion been accused of wanton force, which has resulted in civilian deaths.
A shooting by Blackwater bodyguards in Baghdad in September 2009 resulted in the death of 17 civilians, and the Justice Department has since charged six people with voluntary manslaughter, among other offenses, calling the use of force both unjustified and unprovoked.
A contractor also shot and killed a man standing on a roadside, who later turned out to be a father of six, and a bodyguard who was assigned to protect Iraq’s vice president. In both cases, the contractors were fired but not prosecuted.
Following these incidents, Iraqi officials have refused to give Blackwater an operating license. As a result of this, its revenue dropped 40 percent, and Prince says he is now paying more than $2 million a month in legal fees.
“We used to spend money on R&D to develop better capabilities to serve the US government,” says Prince. “Now we pay lawyers.”
The company is also facing a grand jury investigation and bribery accusations along with the voluntary-manslaughter trial of five ex-employees for Iraqis killed in September 2007.
American agencies have in the past outsourced interrogations , but many worry that the contracting out of the authority to kill brings a new set of problems.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said. “It is too easy to contract out work that you don’t want to accept responsibility for.”
Blackwater, which received more than $1.5 billion in government contracts between 2001 and 2009, regularly offers its training area in North Carolina to CIA operatives and continues to help fly killer drones along the border between and Afghanistan and Pakistan – President Obama is said to have authorized more than three dozen of these hits.
Philip Alston, an Australian human-rights lawyer who has served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, said that drone attacks also operate in “an accountability void.”
Prince said that until two months ago, he was still working on intelligence-gathering operations from an undisclosed location in America and coordinating the movements of spies who were working undercover in the Axis of Evil countries. However, Prince, who was rejected by the CIA when he applied for a position, now plans to curtail his work with Blackwater and teach economics and history in high school.
Tags: al-Qaeda, bagram, cheney, cia assassination, cia jails, cia prisons, CIA rendition, dianne feinstein, drone, drone missiles, executive assassination ring, house intelligence, jeremy scahill, leon panetta, obama administration, pakistan airstrikes, pakistan war, predator drones, roger hollander, Seymour Hersh, sy hersh, torture
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Congress is outraged that Cheney concealed a CIA program to assassinate al Qaeda leaders, but they should also be investigating why Obama is continuing—and expanding—U.S. assassinations.
by Jeremy Scahill
In June, CIA Director Leon Panetta allegedly informed members of the House Intelligence Committee of the existence of a secret Bush era program implemented in the days after 9-11 that, until last month, had been hidden from lawmakers. The concealment of the plan, Panetta alleged, happened at the orders of then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
Now, The New York Times is reporting that this secret program that had “been hidden from lawmakers” by Cheney was a plan “to dispatch small teams overseas to kill senior Qaeda terrorists.” The Wall Street Journal, which originally reported on the plan, reported that the paramilitary teams were to implement a “2001 presidential legal pronouncement, known as a finding, which authorized the CIA to pursue such efforts.”
The plan, the Times says, never was carried out because “Officials at the spy agency over the years ran into myriad logistical, legal and diplomatic obstacles.” Instead, the Bush administration “sought an alternative to killing terror suspects with missiles fired from drone aircraft or seizing them overseas and imprisoning them in secret C.I.A. jails.”
The House Intelligence Committee is now reportedly preparing an investigation into this program and the Senate may follow suit. “We were kept in the dark. That’s something that should never, ever happen again,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein. Withholding this information from Congress “is a big problem, because the law is very clear.”
There are several important issues raised by this unfolding story. First, while the Times claims the program was never implemented, the program sounds very similar to what Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sy Hersh described in March as an “executive assassination ring” run by Dick Cheney that operated throughout the Bush years:
“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.
Hersh’s description sounds remarkably similar to that offered by the Times and the Wall Street Journal. While the House and Senate should certainly investigate this program-and lying to Congress, misleading it or concealing from it such programs is likely illegal-it is also important to guarantee that it has actually stopped. But another pressing issue for the Congress is investigating the Obama administration’s adoption of this secret program’s central components. As the Times noted, the major reason-beyond logistical hurdles-that the program was not implemented (if that is even true) was that the Bush administration began increasing its use of weaponized drones to conduct Israeli-style targeted assassinations (often, these drones kill many more civilians than so-called “targets”). These drone attacks, coupled with the use of extraordinary rendition and secret prisons, became the official program for “eliminating” specific individuals labeled “high value” targets by the administration.
The Obama administration has not only continued the Bush policy of using drones to carry out targeted assassinations, but has also continued the use of prisons where people are held indefinitely without charge or access to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Under Obama, Bagram air base in Afghanistan is expanding and, at present, hundreds of prisoners are held there without charges. In essence, the Obama administration is doing exactly what this secret CIA program sought to do, albeit out in the open.
Beyond the Cheney assassination program, what is really worthy of Congressional investigation right now is the legality of Obama’s current policy of assassination. In 1976, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order banning assassinations. “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination,” states Executive Order 11905.
White House lawyers–with their seemingly infinite legal creativity–would likely say that the drone strikes are not assassinations, but rather part of war. That putting poison in a cigar of a foreign leader is different than launching missiles at a funeral where an “enemy” is believed to be among the mourners. While the implications of the U.S. assassinating heads of state or foreign officials are grave, it could be argued that, on some levels, the drone attacks are worse in the sense that they kill many more civilians. Moreover, these drone attacks largely take place is Pakistan, which is a sovereign nation. There is no legal or Congressional declaration of war against Pakistan.
It is long past due that the Congress investigate this U.S. government assassination program. The politically inconvenient truth, however, is this: An actual investigation would require the Democrats pounding Cheney over his concealment of an assassination program (that allegedly was not implemented) to focus their investigation on how President Obama actually implemented and expanded that very program.
© 2009 Jeremy Scahill
Jeremy Scahill is the author of the New York Times bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is currently a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute.
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Published on Wednesday, April 29, 2009 by TruthDig.com
The Senate interest in investigation has backers in the U.S. House, from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee John Conyers, D-Mich., who told The Huffington Post recently, “We’re coming after these guys.”
Amrit Singh, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Pentagon’s photos “provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib. Their disclosure is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse.” The ACLU also won a ruling to obtain documents relating to the CIA’s destruction of 92 videotapes of harsh interrogations. The tapes are gone, supposedly, but notes about the content of the tapes remain, and a federal judge has ordered their release.
In December 2002, when the Bush torture program was well under way, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed off on a series of harsh interrogation techniques described in a memo written by William Hayes II (one of the “Bush Six” being investigated by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon). At the bottom of the memo, under his signature, Rumsfeld scrawled: “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?” Rumsfeld zealously classified information in his years in government.
A similar crisis confronted the U.S. public in the mid-1970s. While the Watergate scandal was unfolding, widespread evidence was mounting of illegal government activity, including domestic spying and the infiltration and disruption of legal political groups, mostly anti-war groups, in a broad-based, secret government crackdown on dissent. In response, the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities was formed. It came to be known as the Church Committee, named after its chairman, Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church. The Church Committee documented and exposed extraordinary activities on the CIA and FBI, such as CIA efforts to assassinate foreign leaders, and the FBI’s COINTELPRO (counterintelligence) program, which extensively spied on prominent leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It is not only the practices that are similar, but the people. Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr., general counsel to the Church Committee, noted two people who were active in the Ford White House and attempted to block the committee’s work: “Rumsfeld and then [Dick] Cheney were people who felt that nothing should be known about these secret operations, and there should be as much disruption as possible.”
Church’s widow, Bethine Church, now 86, continues to be very politically active in Idaho. She was so active in Washington in the 1970s that she was known as “Idaho’s third senator.” She said there needs to be a similar investigation today: “When you think of all the things that the Church Committee tried to straighten out and when you think of the terrific secrecy that Cheney and all of these people dealt with, they were always secretive about everything, and they didn’t want anything known. I think people have to know what went on. And that’s why I think an independent committee [is needed], outside of the Congress, that just looked at the whole problem and everything that happened.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.