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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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."

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

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.

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.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 The Intercept