The NYT is reporting that Cheney’s secret program was a plan to send small teams of assassins to various countries, C.I.A. Had Plan to Assassinate Qaeda Leaders
Officials at the spy agency over the years ran into myriad logistical, legal and diplomatic obstacles. How could the role of the United States be masked? Should allies be informed and might they block the access of the C.I.A. teams to their targets? What if American officers or their foreign surrogates were caught in the midst of an operation? Would such activities violate international law or American restrictions on assassinations overseas?
The program was supposed to replace or supplement seizing anyone they thought might be a terrorist. We know that seizing suspects turned out to have had questionable results, as some suspected terrorist such as an innocent taxi driver driver were abducted off the street and the Uyghurs Chinese that ended up at Guantanamo Bay detainment camp ( More here German Arrest Warrants for CIA Kidnapping, Torture of Khaled El-Masri Come as US Extraordinary Rendition Scrutinized Around the Globe). As morally reprehensible as acts such as those were, deciding on the spot that the suspect was guilty and to carry out an immediate execution would have been more so. That said some have made the argument that such squads would be no different then the CIA using drones to kill insurgents in Afghanistan. That’s arguable since Afghanistan would be considered a battlefield and any president acting under the authority of the original Authority to Use Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress could order the CIA or Special Forces to take out specific targets. Spencer Ackerman in Drone Attacks Signal CIA’s Willingness to Assassinate Terrorists – Recently Uncovered Program Wasn’t Sole Approach to Agency’s Targeting Killings gets into the question of whether executive order EO 12333 comes into play
“Killing people during war is different from the U.S. government targeting specific persons, outside a battle zone, for killing,” said Vicki Divoll, a former lawyer for both the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “And even in the so-called war on terror, most lawyers who study this issue believe that targeted killing of a named terrorist falls within the ban in a presidential executive order that has been around since the Ford administration.”
The executive order Divoll referred to has come to be known as EO 12333, which President Reagan issued in 1981, building on the efforts of Presidents Ford and Carter. It states, “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”
Anyone blogging on this issue might want to pause for a moment and reconsider using 12333 as the bulk of their argument. It is an executive order, not a legislative act. Presidents can make and break them. Bush trashed Clinton era orders by the dozens and Obama has already rescinded several of Bush’s executive orders. Then to reiterate, Clinton, Bush and and now Obama have used CIA drones to attack al Qaeda and its leaders in Afghanistan. Because of civilian casualties it might not be the best strategy, but is not illegal. Equally important is those strikes do not fall under the discretion of executive orders, but are done with Congressional authority to fight a foreign enemy on the battlefield. So all of this is legal so far, what’s the problem with Cheney’s program.
In 2005, the Pentagon publicly acknowledged a program launched in concert with the CIA to create mixed civilian-military “Strategic Support Teams” for the al-Qaeda hunt. Lawmakers at the time expressed some concern about the teams, but none called them illegal. Nor have any lawmakers assailed the legality of the CIA’s drone strikes.
“I think its taken for granted these are acts of war at a time of war,” said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence policy expert with the Federation of American Scientists. “That’s why it seems to me there must be something more than that involved here.”
The Guardian gets a little more into the possible illegal aspect of the secret program, Dick Cheney ‘hid plans to kill al-Qaida operatives abroad’
Former counter-terrorism officials who retain close links to the intelligence community say that the hidden operation involved plans by the CIA and the military to launch operations, similar to those by Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, to hunt down and kill al-Qaida activists abroad without informing the governments concerned, even though some were regarded as friendly if unreliable.
The CIA apparently did not put the plan in to operation but the US military did, carrying out several assassinations including one in Kenya that proved to be a severe embarrassment and helped lead to the quashing of the programme.
Its easy to imagine the outrage of the average American if Russia sent hot squads to America to target people they considered terrorists because they were making financial contributions to or cultivating dissent in the former Soviet state of Georgia. Or French special forces teams were hunting down some home grown terrorists that had fled to the U.S.
There also remains the issue of not informing Congress. Since we know that targeting al Qaeda figures has been going on without political opposition since the Clinton administration, if Cheney’s secret unit was only doing that, there would be no reason to use his questionable authority to hide a similar program from the gang of eight. The House and Senate intel committees were chaired by Republicans during the time Cheney started the program. The Right’s reaction has been it did not get off the ground ( except we now know about this incident in Kenya) and it was thus not important enough to inform Congress. Programs that involve assassination teams dropped into foreign countries with whom we are not at war makes that argument ingenuous and dishonest. Questions also remain as to whether 4th Branch Cheney and or Bush may have violated the National Security Act.