(CNN) - The Bush administration established a secret special operations unit unmonitored by Congress with authority to assassinate high-value targets in as many as a dozen countries, New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh told CNN Monday.
A former Cheney aide denied the claim.
Watch both interviews today on The Situation Room at 6 pm ET.
In an interview on CNN's The Situation Room, Hersh said the group - called the Joint Special Operations Command - reported to Vice President Dick Cheney and was delegated authority to assassinate individuals based on their own intelligence.
"The idea that we have a unit that goes around and without reporting to Congress - Congress knows very little about this group, can't get hearings, can't get even classified hearings on it…goes around and has authority from the president to go into a country without telling the CIA station chief or the ambassador and whack someone, I am sorry Wolf, yes I have a problem with that," Hersh said in the interview with Wolf Blitzer.
Cheney aide John Hannah denied the claim. "It's not true," he told Blitzer Monday. "And I think you heard in that interview that there was a little walking back from the original claim that was made in the speech that Mr. Hersh made" in which the reporter characterized the group as an "assassination wing."
Hersh said Monday he regretted using that language.
"I wish I had said something different, more careful. It's a loaded phrase, [but] it comes down to the same thing," Hersh said. "[The Bush administration] delegated authority to troops in the field on the basis of whatever intelligence they think is good, and I can tell you it's always not good and sometimes things get very bloody."
Hannah also told CNN that in a "theater of war" like Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pakistani border, "our troops have the authority to go out after and capture and kill the enemy, including the leadership of the enemy."
But he also admitted he did not know for sure what the procedure had been. "I don't know exactly what the consultations are with the Congress, but it's hard for me to believe that those committee chairman and the leadership on the Hill involved in intelligence and armed services, if they want to know about these operations, cannot get that information through the Defense Department."
A Special Operations Command spokesman rejected Hersh's report, saying their forces operate under established rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict. He adds that the vice president has no command-and-control authorities over the U.S. military. Two former Cheney aides also reject the claim, as does the former Bush homeland security adviser, now a national security analyst. Hersh did not disclose any sources in the speech or in the CNN interview, nor was he asked about sources.
The assassination of political leaders has been banned since 1976 - but suspected terrorists are a different story. When it comes to top al Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden, American policy remains unambiguous, with President Obama saying “we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants.” Abu Musab al Zarqawi is the highest profile commander killed by American forces so far.
Former national security adviser Frances Townsend, a CNN national security contributor, says the list of authorized terror targets - people who can be killed without a trial -– numbers fewer than 100 who helped plan attacks or are "plotting the death and destruction of Americans or American interests around the world.” The U.S. military and the intelligence services, she says, are given authority to capture or kill them wherever they're found.
Townsend said the list of targets for the president to sign off on was the product of interagency collaboration that included the military, intelligence, law enforcement, and the Justice Department.
Both interviews air today on The Situation Room.