Hats off to Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times for ferreting out what it was that sent CIA Director Leon Panetta scurrying over to Congress in late June.
According to Mazzetti, Panetta's top lieutenants, many of them holdovers from the last administration, had just told him that, under President Bush, they had farmed out assassinations to their Blackwater subsidiary. I use "they" advisedly, since the CIA holdovers that had kept Panetta in the dark continue to function as Panetta's top managers.
Panetta abruptly stopped the project and contritely briefed the intelligence committees. Until now, it was not clear what had prompted Panetta to set up hurried consultations with the intelligence "oversight" committees of the House and Senate.
An odd odor still hangs over the affair. After being briefed by Panetta, one committee member described him as "stunned" that his lingering lieutenants had kept information on the program from him until nearly five months into his tenure. Yet there is not the faintest hint that anyone on either committee dared to ask why Panetta continues to leave such tainted officials in very senior positions.
Anyone know why he does not send them packing?
Mazzetti quotes officials as admitting that "the C.I.A. did not have a formal contract with Blackwater" for a program with "lethal" authority. Putting out contracts on other people, I suppose you might call it, without a contract. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/20/us/20intel.html?_r=2
What Mazzetti does not mention -- and what he, like the vast majority of Americans, may not know -- is that there is a one-sentence umbrella "contract" available for use as authorization for such activities. It creates a structural fault, so to speak, and a legal loophole through which Bush and Cheney drove a Mack truck of lawlessness.
Bush administration lawyers were not the first to read considerable leeway into that loophole created by just one sentence in the language of the National Security Act of 1947. The sentence can be (ab)used as authorization for all manner of crime -- irrespective of existing law or executive order.
A Cheney-esque "unitary executive" perspective and a dismissive attitude toward lawmakers reinforced the Bush team's predilection to exploit the ambiguous language, taking it further than it had ever been taken in the past.
The Act (as slightly amended) stipulates that the CIA Director shall:
"Perform such functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the President or the National Security Council may from time to time direct."
There's the "umbrella contract." While more than one past President (I served under seven during my tenure at CIA) has taken advantage of that open language, the Bush administration translated the dodging into a new art form. This, in turn, was sustained by Frankenstein cottage industries like Blackwater to launch and operate the administration's own Gestapo. I use the word advisedly; do not blanch before it.
As for outsourcing, it is nothing new. The earlier Nazi Gestapo enjoyed umbrella authorization from the Fuhrer; they and the SS knew what was wanted, and famously "followed orders." There was absolutely no need to go back to supreme authority for approval to contract out some of their work. And German legislators turned out to be even more intimidated than ours -- if you can imagine it.
Charlatans Can Apply...and Some Stay On
As for an American President's freedom of action, all a President need do is surround himself with eager co-conspirators like the sycophant former Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet (not to mention his, and Panetta's, lingering lieutenants), who give allegiance to their secret world of unchecked power, rather than to the Constitution of the United States. True, a Vice President thoroughly versed in using the levers of power also can be a valuable asset.
But the sine quo non for successful subversion of our Constitutional process is this: cowardly members of Congress so afraid of being painted pastel on terrorism that they abdicate their oversight responsibility. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney may have "misunderestimated" some things, but not Congress. They held it in scorn and contempt, and the Congress' behavior gave them every reason to believe they were right.
The Bush White House gave very high priority to "terrorification" of Congress and it paid off handsomely. The most senior congressional leaders caved, winking even at torture, kidnapping, warrantless eavesdropping, etc., etc., etc.
And on the subject of contracting, Congress' oversight role was, in a real sense, "contracted out" -- to eight invertebrate leaders from the House and Senate. Their see-no-evil acquiescence in whatever Bush and Cheney painted as a weapon in the so-called "war on terror" was driven solely by the lawmakers' felt need to appear tough on terrorism.
"After 9/11 everything changed," is certainly an overused aphorism. But it does apply to what happened to the spirit and soul of our country after President Bush was given the pulpit at the National Cathedral. Vengeance is ours, said the President. And the vast majority of Christian leaders were cowed into razoring out of their Bibles "Blessed are the Peacemakers."
Clergy and Congress clapped, and so did the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM). Don't you remember?
The situation bears striking resemblance to that described by German writer Sebastian Haffner, who was in Berlin in 1933 after the Reichstag fire (Germany's 9/11):
"What was missing is what in animals is called ‘breeding.' This is a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures, something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle, and dignity to be drawn on in the hour of trial. It is missing in Germans. "As a nation they are without backbone. That was shown in March 1933. At the moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to the occasion, the Germans collectively and limply collapsed, yielded to a nervous breakdown, and became a nightmare to the rest of the world." ("Defying Hitler," p. 135)
Congress' Stormy Applause...
And our Congress? During the President's infamous State-of-the-Union address on Jan. 28, 2003 (yes, the one with the uranium-from-Africa-to-Iraq and other make-believe), Bush got the most unbridled applause when, after bragging about the 3,000 "suspected terrorists" whom he said had been arrested, he added:
"And many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way: They are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies."
The lawmakers' reaction and the cheering that followed in the FCM reminded me of the short italicized note that Pravda regularly tacked onto the bottom of paragraphs recording similarly fulsome leadership speeches: Burniye aplodismenty; vce stoyat! - Stormy applause; all rise! Even so, Soviet leaders generally avoided (as not quite presidential) seeking applause for thinly veiled allusions to extrajudicial killing.
...and Fawning Over Creeps
It is Congress that is collectively responsible for abdicating its oversight responsibility, while cheering creeps like Cofer Black, CIA's top counter-terrorism official from 1999 to May 2002 and now one of Blackwater's senior leaders.
On Sept. 26, 2002 in his prepared testimony to the Joint Congressional Inquiry on 9/11, the swashbuckling Black said this about "operational flexibility":
"All I want to say is that there was ‘before' 9/11 and ‘after' 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves came off. ... I know that we are on the right track today and as a result we are safer as a nation. ‘No Limits' aggressive, relentless, worldwide pursuit of any terrorist who threatens us is the only way to go and is the bottom line."
What were those "gloves" to which you referred, Mr. Black? Do you mean that legal restrictions were gone? And "No Limits?" Is it the case that there now are no limitations on your pursuit of terrorists? Whence do you derive that kind of authority, Mr. Black? These are just some of the pertinent questions that members of the congressional panel apparently felt would be impertinent to ask.
And authorization? In the Bush/Cheney White House, all it took was a presidential signature, like the one appearing in broad strokes of felt-tipped pen under the two-page executive memorandum of Feb. 7, 2002. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB127/02.02.07.pdf )
Last December the Senate Armed Forces Committee, without dissent, concluded that this memo, "opened the door" to abuse by exempting al Qaeda and Taliban detainees from Geneva protections. Alberto Gonzales, in a felicitous but inadvertent blunder, released that memo five years ago. It is a smoking gun. Someone, please, tell the FCM.
As for assassinations, the special presidential memoranda (often referred to as "Findings") that authorized covert action like the lethal activities of the CIA and Blackwater have not yet surfaced. They will, in due course, if the patriotic truth tellers who have now discussed assassination with the Times and Washington Post continue to put the Constitution and courage above secrecy oaths. Such oaths are aimed at protecting secrets, not crimes.
Vengeance is Ours
CIA operative Gary Schroen has told National Public Radio that, just days after 9/11, Cofer Black sent him to Afghanistan with orders to "Capture bin Laden, kill him, and bring his head back in a box on dry ice." As for other al Qaeda leaders, Black reportedly said, "I want their heads up on pikes."
Schroen told NPR he had been stunned that, for the first time in 30 years of service, he had received orders to kill targets rather than to capture them. Contacted by the radio network, Black would not confirm the exact words of the order to Schroen, but did not dispute Schroen's account.
This quaint tone reverberated among macho, Bush-friendly pundits in the FCM. Washington Post veteran Jim Hoagland, for example, published an open letter to President Bush on Oct. 31, 2001. It was no Halloween prank.
In his letter, Hoagland strongly endorsed what he termed the "wish" for "Osama bin Laden's head on a pike," an objective he attributed to Bush's "generals and diplomats." The consummate insider, Hoagland then virtually gave the real neoconservative game plan away by giving Bush the following ordering of priorities:
"The need to deal with Iraq's continuing accumulation of biological and chemical weapons and the technology to build a nuclear bomb can in no way be lessened by the demands of the Afghan campaign. You must conduct that campaign so that you can pivot quickly from it to end the threat Saddam Hussein's regime poses."
I have the feeling we are in for many more chapters recording how the lawlessness and savagery of post-9/11 Washington played out during the last seven years of the Bush/Cheney administration.