Senior Obama Official Backs Cheney and CIA, Says Concealment of Assassin Program Legal

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Senior Obama Official Backs Cheney and CIA, Says Concealment of Assassin Program Legal

by
Jeremy Scahill

National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair’s comments contradict the assertions of several leading Democrats that laws were broken. (File photo)

WASHINGTON - Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are preparing to hold
hearings to investigate the role of vice president Dick Cheney in
allegedly ordering the C.I.A. to conceal a secret assassination program
from Congress. As I reported yesterday,
there are two crucial issues at play: the nature of the U.S.
assassination program and the role of former vice president Dick Cheney
in concealing aspects of it from Congressional oversight. On the
broader issue of U.S. government assassination, it is very unlikely
that will become a central focus given that there has long been a
bipartisan assassination program that continues under President Obama.
Indeed, most legislators frame their opposition to this program through
the lens of the concealment issue, not the assassinations.

Early
moves, however, by the Obama administration indicate that it is backing
Cheney and the C.I.A. In May, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was under
fire over allegations she had been briefed on U.S. torture tactics, she
publicly accused the C.I.A. of misleading her. In what many viewed as a
response to Pelosi, C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta wrote C.I.A. staff a memo,
saying, "Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead
Congress. That is against our laws and our values... My advice - indeed,
my direction - to you is straightforward: ignore the noise and stay
focused on your mission. We have too much work to do to be distracted
from our job of protecting this country. We are an Agency of high
integrity, professionalism, and dedication."

After Panetta
briefed the Intelligence Committees on June 24 and, according to
Democratic lawmakers, revealed that Cheney had concealed the covert
assassination program from Congress, six Democrats from the House
Intelligence Committee wrote Panetta asking him to retract his
statement that the C.I.A. does not "mislead Congress." Last week, a CIA
spokesperson said Panetta "stands by his May 15 statement."

Some
lawmakers, including Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne
Feinstein and Senator Dick Durbin, have suggested the concealment was
illegal. "The executive branch of government cannot create programs
like these programs and keep Congress in the dark. There is a
requirement for disclosure," Durbin said.
"It is inappropriate for the vice president or the president to be
ordering that a program be kept secret and not disclosed at the highest
levels of congressional leadership."

As Democrats try to build
momentum for the hearings, a senior Obama official has now come forward
to defend the legality of Cheney and the C.I.A.s' alleged concealment.
President Obama's Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, says
the C.I.A. did not violate the law. In an interview with The Washington Post,
Blair said that he believes the C.I.A. should have informed Congress,
but was not required to. "It was a judgment call," said Blair. "We
believe in erring on the side of working with the Hill as a partner."

From the Post:

Blair said that Panetta told him in advance of the decision
to terminate the program and that he supported the action as well as
the decision to inform Congress.

Panetta "felt it was urgent and
appropriate to brief the Hill," Blair said. "You can make a judgment
call on whether a briefing was necessary. We were on the side of ‘Let's
do it.' We're trying to reset our relations with Congress."

Blair
also asserted that killing the program did not diminish U.S. options
for battling al-Qaeda, including the possible use of insertion teams
that could kill or capture terrorist leaders.

"This particular
program didn't make the cut," he said. "But it is absolutely not true
that we are doing less against al-Qaeda. Our primary criterion is
effectiveness, and we will continue to do things that we think are
effective to make terrorist lives miserable, and hopefully, short."

A C.I.A. spokesperson, George Little, told the paper the program was
"never fully operational and never took a single terrorist off the
battlefield." Little added that Panetta has been "aggressively using
the vast tools and tactics at our disposal - those that actually work -
to take terrorists off the streets."

At the end of the day, as I
have pointed out previously, among the crucial issues for Congress to
investigate are: what is Dick Cheney's role in concealing information
to which Congress has a right? What covert assassination programs were
activated by Cheney (and/or Bush) and whom exactly were they targeting?
Is it true, as has been suggested by the current C.I.A. and National
Intelligence directors, that this specific program was never activated?
Part of this investigation should also include a deep probe into the assertions made by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh that Cheney was running an "executive assassination ring."

The current portrayal of what exactly this program entailed is, at
best, very fishy on several levels. To me, this very much seems like
some major league misdirection. There is no doubt that Cheney was
running some nefarious programs and any orders from Cheney to the
C.I.A. to conceal information on programs to which Congress has a right
should be fully investigated. BUT, when compared with other information
about Bush/Cheney illegal operations, the description of this one seems
really small potatoes for the Intel Committees outside of the need for
Pelosi to be vindicated. I guarantee you that there are much worse
things that members of the Intelligence Committees are aware of than a
program that never was activated, which Cheney told the C.I.A. not to
mention to Congress. It bears repeating: this secret program, as it is
currently being described, is very, very similar to the longstanding
U.S. assassination program that the Intel Committees have known about
for years predating 9/11 and Bush/Cheney's time in power.

Former C.I.A. operator Robert Baer, has an interesting take on all of this at Time. I am not endorsing Baer's view, but think it is worth reading:

Sounds alarming. But like many of these stories, there's
less to it than meets the eye. The unit conducted no assassinations or
grabs. A former CIA officer involved in the program told me that no
targets were picked, no weapons issued and no one sent overseas to
carry out anything. "It was little more than a PowerPoint
presentation," he said. "Why would we tell Congress?"

That's a
good question, especially since the program was an open secret. On Oct.
28, 2001, the Washington Post ran an article with the title "CIA Weighs
‘Targeted Killing' Missions." And in 2006, New York Times reporter
James Risen wrote a book in which he revealed the program's secret code
name, Box Top . Moreover, it is well known that on Nov. 3, 2002, the
CIA launched a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone over Yemen,
killing an al-Qaeda member involved in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole.
And who knows how many "targeted killings" there have been in
Afghanistan and Iraq?

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