It turns out that the secret CIA program that Leon Panetta cancelled, and which former VP Richard Bruce Cheney ordered hidden from Congress, was in fact an assassination squad focusing on al-Qaeda figures.
The problem with assassination teams is that they are extra-judicial. They are killing people who have not been proven to have done anything wrong. The long litany of mistakes that security organizations have made in recent years, targeting innocents, should form a legion of cautionary tales about just killing people. Maher Arar, for instance, might as well have simply been shot down like a dog as shackled and sent for torture by the Baath Party in Damascus. He was innocent. Murat Kurnaz might have as easily had two bullets put behind his right ear as to have been arrested and sent for “interrogation” to Guantanamo (this is the link for his book). Then there was that little Khaled el-Masri ‘oops’ moment, which would have been even more embarrassing to the US government if he had been shot between the eyes by a US government sniper. I could go on and on (the majority of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay now appears to have been clueless innocents, and Bush-Cheney appears to have wanted to sentence them to life imprisonment without a trial; they could have as easily just been shot on sight).
It could be argued that the CIA would be more careful about who it killed than about who it had detained or had tortured, but we cannot really be sure of that, can we? In fact, Cheney did the CIA itself a grave disservice by putting it in the position of having to plan, at least, to act extra-judicially and beyond the reach of any oversight except his own (shudder). A bureaucracy dedicated to fighting a struggle needs mechanisms for judging its performance and needs to be told when it has gone too far.
My neighbor congressman Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) seems to think that the issue is how much money was spent on this program, which apparently never got off the ground. That it was a small program is not important. September 11 itself probably only cost al-Qaeda $500,000 or so, yet resulted in large loss of innocent life. The issues are ones of constitutionality, good governance, and ethics.
Since we now know that the CIA 007’s were only in training and it is alleged at least, that they were not actually put into the field with a mission, a dark thought crosses my mind. What if Cheney, who notoriously disliked the CIA, decided to give the assassination missions to the military special ops, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), as detailed by Seymour Hersh, instead? That is, the program Panetta closed down may not be the one that went operational. Who is in charge of JSOC now? Anyone? Still Cheney?
Then there is the issue of congressional oversight. I know Congress can be leaky. But frankly you cannot have any sort of democracy if you have a covert organization carrying out black operations with no oversight from any branch of government but the Executive. The CIA is in the executive branch and so can hardly be policed by it. There will always be the temptation to use covert operations to influence American public opinion, and even to influence the outcome of elections. In the 1962 Operation Northwoods, even the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed committing terrorism against Americans to whip up sentiment in favor of intervention in Cuba. And the JCS is not even a covert organization. Some assassinations could drag the United States into war if their circumstances became known, and you could never be sure they would not be. Even just a supposedly simple rendition (kidnapping), like that of Abu Omar from Milan, unwound like a silent-era Keystone Cops episode; then what about actually killing someone? Nor would all the agents involved defend their actions in Milan; if they regret that, how would they feel if they had been ordered to kill Abu Omar (who, by the way, may never have committed any crimes)?
Me, I think terrorists operating in societies at peace are criminals and should be dealt with as a police matter. I don’t deny that there may be extraordinary circumstances in which direct and immediate action might save a lot of lives; but then, I would put that under the rubric of policing, as well.
Senator Diane Feinstein thinks Cheney may have broken the law by keeping Congress in the dark about the program. If he didn’t, then the law needs to be rewritten!
Now that it is becoming clear that Cheney’s warrantless wiretapping program at the National Security Agency was just enormous, and that he was at the heart of efforts to stonewall after the Valerie Plame leak, it seems to me only a matter of time until so many of Cheney’s crimes become public that pressure will grow to at least have a fact-finding commission on his dirty deeds.
Cheney is a traitor for his role in outing Valerie Plame (and yes, he had Irv Lewis Libby, his chief of staff, try like hell to out her; it is not relevant that Bob Novak took the information from Armitage first). He hid covert operations from Congress. He contemplated assassination squads and for all we know ran some. If Congress doesn’t want to look mean-spirited or to risk disillusioning the public with government by prosecuting the former vice president, let’s at least have a truth commission that gets documents declassified and lays out his full role so we don’t have to wait until 2039 to judge it.
The only thing worse than impunity for crimes is a decades-long cover-up of those crimes from the American people. Complete sunshine on Richard Bruce Cheney’s misdeeds is the minimum necessary to work against them being repeated by the next administration.
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