Senior Obama Official Backs Cheney and CIA

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are preparing to hold hearings to investigate the role of vice president Dick Cheney in allegedly ordering the CIA to conceal a secret assassination program from Congress. As I reported yesterday, there are two crucial issues at play: the nature of the U.S. assassination program and the role of former vice president Dick Cheney in concealing aspects of it from Congressional oversight. On the broader issue of U.S. government assassination, it is very unlikely that will become a central focus given that there has long been a bipartisan assassination program that continues under President Obama. Indeed, most legislators frame their opposition to this program through the lens of the concealment issue, not the assassinations.

Early moves, however, by the Obama administration indicate that it is backing Cheney and the CIA In May, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was under fire over allegations she had been briefed on U.S. torture tactics, she publicly accused the CIA of misleading her. In what many viewed as a response to Pelosi, CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote CIA staff a memo, saying, "Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and our values… My advice — indeed, my direction — to you is straightforward: ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission. We have too much work to do to be distracted from our job of protecting this country. We are an Agency of high integrity, professionalism, and dedication."

After Panetta briefed the Intelligence Committees on June 24 and, according to Democratic lawmakers, revealed that Cheney had concealed the covert assassination program from Congress, six Democrats from the House Intelligence Committee wrote Panetta asking him to retract his statement that the CIA does not "mislead Congress." Last week, a CIA spokesperson said Panetta "stands by his May 15 statement."

Some lawmakers, including Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein and Senator Dick Durbin, have suggested the concealment was illegal. "The executive branch of government cannot create programs like these programs and keep Congress in the dark. There is a requirement for disclosure," Durbin said. "It is inappropriate for the vice president or the president to be ordering that a program be kept secret and not disclosed at the highest levels of congressional leadership."

As Democrats try to build momentum for the hearings, a senior Obama official has now come forward to defend the legality of Cheney and the CIAs’ alleged concealment. President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, says the CIA did not violate the law. In an interview with The Washington Post, Blair said that he believes the CIA should have informed Congress, but was not required to. "It was a judgment call," said Blair. "We believe in erring on the side of working with the Hill as a partner."

From the Post:

Blair said that Panetta told him in advance of the decision to terminate the program and that he supported the action as well as the decision to inform Congress.

Panetta "felt it was urgent and appropriate to brief the Hill," Blair said. "You can make a judgment call on whether a briefing was necessary. We were on the side of ‘Let’s do it.’ We’re trying to reset our relations with Congress."

Blair also asserted that killing the program did not diminish U.S. options for battling al-Qaeda, including the possible use of insertion teams that could kill or capture terrorist leaders.

"This particular program didn’t make the cut," he said. "But it is absolutely not true that we are doing less against al-Qaeda. Our primary criterion is effectiveness, and we will continue to do things that we think are effective to make terrorist lives miserable, and hopefully, short."

A CIA spokesperson, George Little, told the paper the program was "never fully operational and never took a single terrorist off the battlefield." Little added that Panetta has been "aggressively using the vast tools and tactics at our disposal — those that actually work — to take terrorists off the streets."

At the end of the day, as I have pointed out previously, among the crucial issues for Congress to investigate are: what is Dick Cheney’s role in concealing information to which Congress has a right? What covert assassination programs were activated by Cheney (and/or Bush) and whom exactly were they targeting? Is it true, as has been suggested by the current CIA and National Intelligence directors, that this specific program was never activated? Part of this investigation should also include a deep probe into the assertions made by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh that Cheney was running an "executive assassination ring."

The current portrayal of what exactly this program entailed is, at best, very fishy on several levels. To me, this very much seems like some major league misdirection. There is no doubt that Cheney was running some nefarious programs and any orders from Cheney to the CIA to conceal information on programs to which Congress has a right should be fully investigated. BUT, when compared with other information about Bush/Cheney illegal operations, the description of this one seems really small potatoes for the Intel Committees outside of the need for Pelosi to be vindicated. I guarantee you that there are much worse things that members of the Intelligence Committees are aware of than a program that never was activated, which Cheney told the CIA not to mention to Congress. It bears repeating: this secret program, as it is currently being described, is very, very similar to the longstanding U.S. assassination program that the Intel Committees have known about for years predating 9/11 and Bush/Cheney’s time in power.

Former CIA operator Robert Baer, has an interesting take on all of this at Time. I am not endorsing Baer’s view, but think it is worth reading:

Sounds alarming. But like many of these stories, there’s less to it than meets the eye. The unit conducted no assassinations or grabs. A former CIA officer involved in the program told me that no targets were picked, no weapons issued and no one sent overseas to carry out anything. "It was little more than a PowerPoint presentation," he said. "Why would we tell Congress?"

That’s a good question, especially since the program was an open secret. On Oct. 28, 2001, the Washington Post ran an article with the title "CIA Weighs ‘Targeted Killing’ Missions." And in 2006, New York Times reporter James Risen wrote a book in which he revealed the program’s secret code name, Box Top. Moreover, it is well known that on Nov. 3, 2002, the CIA launched a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone over Yemen, killing an al-Qaeda member involved in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. And who knows how many "targeted killings" there have been in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Author: Jeremy Scahill

Independent journalist Jeremy Scahill is author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is a frequent contributor to The Nation magazine and a correspondent for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now! He is currently a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at The Nation Institute.