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. Brian Crooks

    I want to see some real, hard-hitting investigative journalism about this. As it stands, the Spanish court is drawing up an indictment against the Bush Administration for war crimes. We cannot and should not turn a blind eye to this and let it slide. And yes, I would say the exact same thing if it was VP Gore or VP Biden that was accused of this.

    From the sounds of things (as reported on MSNBC's Countdown weeks ago), Cheney had a hit squad that was answerable only to him that nobody else knew about. Including President Bush. Somebody HAS to get to the bottom of this, and fast.

    March 30, 2009 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  2. Mark, B'ham., Al.

    If the Bush Administration really had a hit-squad as Mr. Hersh accuses them of, they would have made him disappear if they found him overseas. The Armed Forces will find the enemy leadership and capture or kill it if they need too. That is their job.

    March 30, 2009 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  3. Kurt C.

    Sounds like another made up accusation by a liberal like so many other made up accusations with no proof.

    And all of you Obamanites just believe it without one shred of proof. Maybe you should be jailed for being so stupid as to believe it without proof.

    March 30, 2009 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  4. RD

    I'd be interested to see if either Cheney or Bush travel abroad. I bet they would be picked up and held for war crimes... in allied countries even.

    They are basically under country-arrest for fear of foreign prosecution. It's only a matter of time before their own country uncovers the full nature of their true crimes... here is another glimpse.

    Where is the threshold for public outrage? for official action??

    March 30, 2009 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  5. pete

    not the least bit surprised. in fact if i didn't know any better, i'm sure cheney had this type of operation way back when he was defense secretary. Hmmmmmmmm!!!!!!! send them all to jail. better yet send them to aaabbbuu garaaaib.

    March 30, 2009 05:02 pm at 5:02 pm |
  6. max zorin

    Thank god such a wing existed!!! To all others who are blaming bush/cheney, white house does not exist to hold tea parties, its job is to defend thankless americans like yourself.

    March 30, 2009 05:02 pm at 5:02 pm |
  7. David

    Give me a break. JSOC has been around since 1980, and has been involved in a number of CT and black ops over the last two decades. It's one thing to get high and mighty if they are executing targets in nations where we don't currently have on ongoing operation, but acting all indignant when SF troops do "wet work" in a theater of war is just a little bit melodramatic and silly. ALL troops in a combat zone are hunting and killing the enemy to some degree. To get to the deeply entrenched enemy leaders and VIPs behind the front lines, you send in surgical teams like these. We've always done it, and so has every other country with a developed military. Get over it. There may be lots of things to blame on Cheney, but this one is a red herring.

    March 30, 2009 05:02 pm at 5:02 pm |
  8. Matt

    And Obama has a secret police; a Watergate style spying on the GOP, and is tapping all the GOP telephones.

    March 30, 2009 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  9. Carol

    I don't doubt it for a minute.

    March 30, 2009 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  10. Brian Crooks

    Sy Hersh talks about this group's activities in up to a dozen countries, but Mr. Hannah mentions Iraq and Afghanistan. We aren't at war in a dozen countries, so why would we need to kill people in a dozen countries?

    March 30, 2009 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  11. William

    Protecting the most powerful nation in the world is a very hard task. None of you including me can even understand what goes into that task. We have to make sacrafices, in WW II we totally demolished two whole cities and there was no public outcry....just whatever it takes to win. If everything we do has to go through congress and they did nothing under the books we would have 4 911's a year. It takes tough people to protect our freedom, people who still do whatever it takes at whatever cost. Those are the real heros, but people like you you all just cant understand that.

    March 30, 2009 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  12. marie independent

    I sincerely hope they arent in still "working" mode, if so, who is next on thier list, Chenay STILL is a dangerous man, in or out of office !

    March 30, 2009 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  13. Clay

    Since we can't count on our Congress to hold Bush and Cheney accountable, I guess we'll have to wait until Spain's investigation is completed to get the facts. From starting an illegal war through rendition and torture, our Congress failed to find a single high crime or misdeamenor on which to impeach or prosecute. Instead, they're all sitting around waiting for the statute of limitations to run out and hoping that things get so bad in this country and world that we'll have other things on our mind. That's the quality of people we have in Washington and if Obama lets this slide then he can join that group as well.

    March 30, 2009 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  14. meh

    Honestly? It would not surprise me at ALL if this were true. I do, however, want to see some actual evidence.

    ib> What do Dodd, Frank, or President Obama have to do w. this? You're ranting rather incoherently.
    So Dodd and Frank did something something and this reporter is from NY, ergo....this story can't possibly be true! Nice logic.

    March 30, 2009 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  15. catmom

    I knew once President Bush left office there would be all sorts of things the American people would find out about that administration. I wonder how Republicans will spin this.

    March 30, 2009 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  16. Pee Wee

    Actually, the government does so much stuff (under Dem and Repub control) that if most people knew it would scare them to death. Just stay on your myspace page and sleep well tonight.

    March 30, 2009 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  17. Ron - Saint Louis

    Its hard to believe the GOP setup its only little "death squad". Luck we have term limits else they would have been targeting "problem citizens" with the US next.

    March 30, 2009 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  18. Mari

    @ Max Zorin................. Bush took an OATH to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States... NOT BREAK ITS LAWS!

    March 30, 2009 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  19. stag

    Wow, I sure hope we never killed a bad guy without telling congress. Be good and put America's intersest second, or third, ..... We just let this nation fail in peace with everyone lkeing us.

    March 30, 2009 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  20. Will-South Dakota

    What IF he's right? and No one investigates?

    March 30, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |

    We are in 2 wars in an effort to rid the world of TERRORISM HOWEVER, WE OURSELVES ARE ACTING LIKE TERROIST. I realize that due to National Security things are kept secret but don't you think that the CIA should have known about this, don't care about congress because there's a lot of people on the Hill with LOOSE LIPS. If true this is very disturbing but not surprising with all that is coming out about TORTURE TACTICS.

    March 30, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  22. The dog

    You see it's not as easy to live in freedom.
    You people who have not been in war will never understand
    War is "HELL". Literally.

    It does confuse me that War has been going on since the "Beginning of Time.

    What you don't know about war you don't want to know.

    It changes people.

    I pray everyday for the freedom we have here. I dread the day we have to fight in our own back yards.

    Lets see then what the rules are.

    March 30, 2009 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  23. Big Ed

    Hey Republicans! Where is your anger? Where is your call for "transparency"? I'm afraid this is not the only surprise that we will find. Where is the government for the people and by the people? Probably with the Bill Of Rights, tossed out in the trash by "W" and his Secret Commandos

    March 30, 2009 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  24. Devildog

    What ever it takes to keep our country and the world safe. Keep up the good work soldiers!

    March 30, 2009 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  25. Jackie in Dallas

    Anyone really surprised by this? If a Vice President of this country, even one that is no longer in office, can go on national TV and say that anything that the President (and presumably, the Vice President) does is by definition, legal, even if it strips us of our rights and freedoms, do we really think that such a group does NOT exist? After 8 years of the Imperial Vice Presidency, I'm no longer surprised by anything.

    Bush/Cheney: there is a REASON why there are checks and balances on the Executive Branch, the Judicial Branch, and the Legislative Branch...and that is to prevent any one branch of our government from becoming so powerful that they can overrule the other two. You may have stripped my rights away with the Patriot Act, which is anything BUT patriotic, but guess what? You still have to obey the laws. It's called due process, and is what sets us apart from facism.

    March 30, 2009 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
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