March 30th, 2009
04:39 PM ET
13 years ago

Reporter alleges secret 'assassination wing'

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Journalist Seymour Hersh sat down with CNN's Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room Monday."]
(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.

Filed under: Dick Cheney
soundoff (104 Responses)
  1. Maggie

    It wouldn't surprise me if this is true. Bush and company were the ones who okayed torture.

    The damage the Bush administration did to this country may take years to atone for, and so far, I haven't seen any of them heading off to Leavenworth for their crimes.

    March 30, 2009 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  2. cherrystrawberry

    WOW! If its true....then WOW! Hang it up republicans

    March 30, 2009 04:44 pm at 4:44 pm |
  3. Lesley Anne

    This certainly won't help the Repubs reinvigorate their party. I'm sure there will be more reports like this about what really went on during the Bush years that they will have to defend.

    March 30, 2009 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  4. Frank, Las Vegas

    Is anyone surprised that Bush and Cheney had a hit squad? Is anyone really surprised by anything that pair did? When you ignore the Constitution and international laws as they did time and time again, they begin to think that since they didn't get caught for the last thing they did, they just keep on going, adding more and more violations. And so they get to the point of a hit squad and say, why not, no one is watching or questioning us, and so it happens.

    March 30, 2009 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  5. thomas

    In a democracy, the government must be accountable to the people.

    March 30, 2009 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  6. Alex

    Something tells me that this guy has his eye on a book deal.

    March 30, 2009 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  7. Laverne

    Like Joe Biden said "Dick Cheney is the most dangerous VP in history". This man has no shame and he continues to try and defend his actions. The Bush administration should be prosecuted.

    March 30, 2009 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  8. In Houston, TX

    This is old news, I hear about this on Keith Oberman on MSNBC (I never miss it!) The fact that it's on CNN political ticker validates the story, the only real question I think needs to be answered at this point is, What are we going to do about it?
    How are we going to handle this?
    Are we truly a nation of laws?
    This is the land of the free and the home of the brave, but is there truly justice for all?
    With the atrocities perpetrated by the Bush administration, One has to wonder if the answer really is yes?
    They are guilty of a great many terrible things, but are we going to hold them accountable?

    March 30, 2009 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  9. Avi Shlom

    This makes me sick. Wetalk about rouge goverments doing that sort of thing. we are in the same club as any group we call terorist or regime that we deemed unacceptble. Thank you Mr President Cheny and President only by name Bush

    March 30, 2009 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |
  10. Jim in San Jose

    I think it would be most appropriate if King Bush and Prince Cheney were brought up on war crimes at the Hague.

    March 30, 2009 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |
  11. turnip

    Line 13/14 of the article states: "....Congress knows very little..."

    That part I believe.

    March 30, 2009 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  12. sherry

    The Bush administration thinking they were above the law....they need to be tried and prosecuted......

    March 30, 2009 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  13. Jack

    Good. Maybe they actually killed the right people.

    March 30, 2009 04:54 pm at 4:54 pm |
  14. Michigan Jim

    Let's see the evidence, Seymour. If I remember correctly, you're prone to overblowing facts.

    March 30, 2009 04:55 pm at 4:55 pm |
  15. David

    I think this unit has been available to every President. However never before were they running around and acting on their own intelligence (or lack thereof).

    I also do not think they were ever deployed until they had a "mission" as opposed to searching for a mission. Now that is SCARY!

    Is anyone really surprised about this?

    March 30, 2009 04:56 pm at 4:56 pm |
  16. Objective Thinking

    I would not be surprised if this was true, though I don't see how the reporter would know?

    March 30, 2009 04:56 pm at 4:56 pm |
  17. ib

    What do you expect from a reporter who is from NY. Everyone has forgot what Dodd & Frank did it's all Bush & Cheney's fault and will be as long as Obama is in office. If we are going to proscute someone let's do it to Obama. This country will never recover from his spending.

    March 30, 2009 04:56 pm at 4:56 pm |
  18. Vicman

    This is incredible!!! God saves America!!

    March 30, 2009 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  19. edb

    This is all true. Just refer to the gangstalking issues that is happening in the country today and you will know that it was being handled secretly by government.

    March 30, 2009 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  20. Tim

    There needs to be a full investigation and those responsible to include Cheney should be prosecuter and put in jail.

    March 30, 2009 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  21. Greg, San Francisco, CA

    If true, this would come as a complete and total shock – to no one.

    March 30, 2009 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  22. Larry from RI

    And the right wingers are whining about a 'socialist agenda' – OK with a Stalinist one though huh?

    You won't hear a peep out of them on this unless it is to try to somehow justify it as being acceptable in "the war on terror".

    The stinking slime is sure oozing from under the GOP rocks these days huh?

    March 30, 2009 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  23. Mel

    Considering that this is the same administration that thought torture was ok, it wouldn't surprise me. At the same time, it strikes me as unlikely. Bush isn't intelligent enough to have put two and two together. Cheney now... him I can see having created something like this. He's a complete nut.

    March 30, 2009 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  24. marie independent

    Oh my, this should set off a blizzard in congress ! hope it isnt true, but, if it IS, I would not be surprised !

    March 30, 2009 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  25. leo S,

    well its about time the find the real truth about the group that has been in charge of our goverment the past eight years,yes they had had a list ,andcheney was in charged with the bush approval.they ought to be turned over to the united nations for prosecution,NOW.

    March 30, 2009 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
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