The Democrats' Selective Amnesia on Assassination: Clinton Did It and Obama Does It Too

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The Democrats' Selective Amnesia on Assassination: Clinton Did It and Obama Does It Too

While the focus is on Dick Cheney’s role, the U.S. has long had a bi-partisan assassination program.

Members of Congress have expressed outrage over the "secret" CIA assassination program that former vice president Dick Cheney allegedly ordered concealed from Congress. But this program-and the media descriptions of it-sounds a lot like the assassination policy implemented by President Bill Clinton, particularly during his second term in office.

Partisan politics often require selective amnesia. Over the past decade, we have seen this amnesia take hold when it comes to many of President Bush's most vile policies. And we are now seeing a pretty severe case overtake several leading Democrats. It makes for good speechifying to act as though all criminality began with Bush and-particularly these days-Cheney, but that is extreme intellectual dishonesty. The fact is that many of Bush's worst policies (now being highlighted by leading Democrats) were based in some form or another in a Clinton-initiated policy or were supported by the Democrats in Congress with their votes. To name a few: the USA PATRIOT Act, the invasion of Iraq, the attack against Afghanistan, the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, the widespread use of mercenaries and other private contractors in US war zones and warrant-less wire-tapping.

Regarding the Bush-era assassination program, there is great reason to be skeptical that the program CIA Director Leon Panetta alleges was concealed from Congress is actually the program the public is currently being led to believe it is. Why would the CIA need to conceal a program that never was implemented and, if it never was implemented, why did Panetta need to shut it down? Moreover, who was running this inactive program from the minute Obama was sworn in until June 24 when Panetta supposedly announced its cancellation? This program-as it is currently being described- should hardly be a major scandal to members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, as some are now treating it. As they well know, President Obama has continued the Bush targeted assassination program using weaponized drones and special forces teams hunting "high value targets." As former CIA Counter-terrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro and others have pointed out, "The CIA runs drones and targets al Qaeda safe houses all the time." Cannistraro told Talking Points Memo that there is no important difference between those kinds of attacks and "assassinations" with a gun or a knife.

Now, if it turns out that the actual plan Cheney allegedly concealed is something other than what has been publicly described, that will be a different matter. For instance, if the CIA had a secret post-9/11 program planning assassinations on US soil or of US citizens and it was ordered concealed by Cheney. Or, if it was a plan to target in other ways "enemies of the state" within the U.S. as Seymour Hersh has suggested: "The Central Intelligence Agency was very deeply involved in domestic activities against people they thought to be enemies of the state," Hersh said in March. "Without any legal authority for it. They haven't been called on it yet. That does happen."

Let's look at the program the Democrats claim was kept secret. The Bush administration reportedly authorized the CIA to use small paramilitary teams to hunt down and assassinate "al Qaeda" leaders around the world. It is currently being reported that this plan was never implemented and was born after 9/11. Both of these assertions are very, very doubtful.

The plan, as currently described in the press and by Democrats, is one that continues to exist under the Obama administration right now. In fact, this program has been part of official U.S. policy-under Democratic and Republican administrations-for decades.

By way of background, there is technically a U.S. ban on assassination that dates back to President Ford in 1976. "No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination," states Executive Order 11905. That was then updated by President Carter who dropped the term "political" simply prohibiting "assassination." The current Executive Order, 12333, was signed by president Reagan in 1981 and has remained on the books through every administration since. What is brutally ironic about Reagan signing this ban was that he authorized repeated assassinations, notably the 1986 attempt on Col. Moammar Gadhafi, which failed to kill Gadhafi but instead killed his infant daughter. But in that brutal apparent contradiction is the truth: the U.S. does not have a ban on assassinations as long as government lawyers can figure out some legal acrobats for the president to use in sidelining the ban. Every president from Reagan to Obama has reserved the right to assassinate kill "terrorists" by claiming it as a military operation or a preemptive strike.

It is pretty clear that when the Bush administration took over, it picked up the Clinton administration's policy on assassination and ran with it-albeit with more of a missionary zeal for killing and a removal of some of the layers of lawyering. In short, the Bush team expanded and streamlined the longstanding U.S. government assassination program.

Throughout the 1990s, the question of covert assassinations was a source of major discussion within the Clinton White House and it is clear assassinations were attempted with presidential approval. Newsweek magazine reported on how, in 1995, U.S. Special Forces facilitated the assassination of a Libyan "terrorist" in Bosnia, saying, "American authorities justified the assassination under a little-known 1993 ‘lethal finding' signed by President Bill Clinton that gave permission to target terrorists." A former senior Clinton official speaking shortly after 9/11 called on the Bush administration not to escalate the U.S. assassination program, saying "We have a war on drugs, too, but we don't kill drug lords." But then, with no apparent sense of contradiction, the official added, "we have proxies who do."

Clinton-era officials' attempt to hide behind "proxies" is a stunning trampling of the assassination ban as it currently exists. Not only does it ban U.S. government personnel from engaging in or conspiring to engage in "assassination," it also bans "Indirect Participation," stating: "No agency of the Intelligence Community shall participate in or request any person to undertake activities forbidden by this Order."

The truth is, under Clinton, it wasn't just proxies authorized to do the assassinations.

The Clinton White House worked for years with the CIA to craft an assassination policy-specifically relating to "al Qaeda" in general and Osama bin-Laden and his top deputies specifically. CIA operatives like Billy Waugh complained in the early and middle years of the Clinton presidencies that they were lawyered to death by Clinton's attorneys in their attempts to get the green light to kill bin Laden in Sudan. "[I]n the early 1990s we were forced to adhere to the sanctimonious legal counsel and the do-gooders," recalled Waugh. Among Waugh's rejected ideas was an alleged plot to kill bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan and dump his body at the Iranian Eembassy in an effort to pin the blame on Tehran. Eventually, however, Clinton did authorize what amounted to assassination squads to hunt down and kill bin Laden and other "al Qaeda leaders." That happened officially in 1998 with Clinton's signing of a Memorandum of Notification authorizing the CIA to carry out covert assassinations. George W Bush was not the president and Dick Cheney was not the vice president. Of course, current CIA Director Leon Panetta was Clinton's chief of staff from 1994 to 1997 and would have been party to years worth of discussion on this issue when Clinton was president.

Under Clinton, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel issued secret rulings stating that the Ford/Reagan ban on assassinations did not apply to "military targets or "to attacks carried out in preemptive self-defense," according to Steve Coll, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Ghost Wars.

Shortly after 9/11, Clinton stated this position publicly, supporting the Bush administration's "war on terror" targeted assassination policy, saying on NBC News, "The ban that was put in effect under President Ford only applies to heads of state. It doesn't apply to terrorists." That is a stunning statement that is a true legal stretch given the explicit language of the ban. Moreover, Clinton did, in fact, try to kill a head of state on April 22, 1999, when he ordered a NATO airstrike on the home of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Clinton and Gen. Wesley Clark also authorized an assassination attempt on Serbian Information Minister, Aleksander Vucic, bombing Radio Television Serbia when Vucic was scheduled to appear via satellite on CNN's "Larry King Live." Vucic was not killed, but 16 media workers were.

Clinton also publicly acknowledged his own administration's attempt to assassinate bin Laden. "I worked hard to try to kill him," Clinton said. "I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since." Clinton's National Security Advisor Sandy Berger said after Clinton issued his 1998 "lethal finding," U.S. operatives worked with Afghan rebels for two years in an attempt to kill Bin Laden. "There were a few points when the pulse quickened, when we thought we were close," Berger later recalled. Among the alleged attempts on bin Laden's life taken by Clinton was the 1998 bombing of Afghanistan (which was coupled with a massive strike on the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan).

As Coll observed of the Clinton policy: "Clinton had demonstrated his willingness to kill bin Laden, without any pretense of seeking his arrest."

After 9/11, the CIA, which had been frustrated by some of the hurdles to assassination posed by the Clinton administration's legal team, now had the conditions and the commander-in-chief it needed to take its assassination program to the next level. The main operations were run out of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) headed by J. Cofer Black, who had served as Clinton's CIA station chief in Sudan when bin Laden was there in the 1990s. After 9/11, Black's division at the CIA was authorized by President Bush -with the consent of Congress-to hunt down bin Laden and others alleged to be responsible for 9/11. As I describe in my book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army:

Before the core CIA team, Jawbreaker, deployed [to Afghanistan] on September 27, 2001, Black gave his men direct and macabre directions. "Gentlemen, I want to give you your marching orders, and I want to make them very clear. I have discussed this with the President, and he is in full agreement," Black told covert CIA operative Gary Schroen. "I don't want bin Laden and his thugs captured, I want them dead... . They must be killed. I want to see photos of their heads on pikes. I want bin Laden's head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice. I want to be able to show bin Laden's head to the President. I promised him I would do that." Schroen said it was the first time in his thirty-year career he had been ordered to assassinate an adversary rather than attempting a capture. Black asked if he had made himself clear. "Perfectly clear, Cofer," Schroen told him. "I don't know where we'll find dry ice out there in Afghanistan, but I think we can certainly manufacture pikes in the field." Black later explained why this would be necessary. "You'd need some DNA," Black said. "There's a good way to do it. Take a machete, and whack off his head, and you'll get a bucketful of DNA, so you can see it and test it. It beats lugging the whole body back!"

The actions of the teams run by Cofer Black were certainly known to Congress. In fact, Black himself testified in front of Congress in 2002 about what he called the new "operational flexibility" being employed in the "war on terror." "This is a very highly classified area, but I have to say that all you need to know: There was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11," Black said. "After 9/11 the gloves come off." By 2004, Black claimed that "over 70 percent" of Al Qaeda's leadership had been arrested, detained, or killed, and "more than 3,400 of their operatives and supporters have also been detained and put out of an action." The existence of this program is not secret. It has been documented in books by former CIA operatives, is discussed in public speeches by former officials and is a reflected extensively in the Congressional record.

Obviously, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees should investigate the assassination policy under the Bush administration. Cheney's role is central to that. Prosecutors should also be authorized to do the same. If there is a nefarious program that the public is unaware of and was unlawfully concealed, it should be brought out into the light. But, the truth is that a real investigation-one that actually seeks to get to the broader truths of these matters- would require investigating the current assassination program under Obama and the roots of the program that preceded the day when George W Bush took power. That means looking at the Clinton White House and further back. It means looking at both Democratic and Republican assassination teams. The sad fact is that nobody on Capitol Hill has demonstrated in any way that they have the political courage to do that.

Jeremy Scahill

Jeremy Scahill is an investigative reporter, war correspondent and author of the international bestselling books Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield and Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army.  He has reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere across the globe. Scahill has served as the national security correspondent for The Nation and Democracy Now!, and in 2014 co-founded The Intercept with fellow journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and investor Pierre Omidyar. Follow him on Twitter: @jeremyscahill

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