Is Obama Continuing the Bush/Cheney Assassination Program?

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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