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. phoenix86

    What is the source? This seems like another case of sleazy journalism designed to grab headlines.

    March 30, 2009 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
  2. John, SF

    The Bush, Cheney pair plus their henchman Rumsfield, don't forget, should be sent to world court and hanged. The killing, destruction they have done are simply astounding. Some of them may never be undone.

    March 30, 2009 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
  3. jfs Memhis, Tn

    I am not one for looking back.....but this hedges on outrageous !!! Hopefully Hersh knows ...for certain....that indeed this were correct !!! I susupect if it were true that the USA did not excercise this option. Kind of wish this sort of thing would not get so much press. We need to put this junk behind us and support our New President getting us through this difficult time.

    March 30, 2009 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
  4. abn91c

    I'll bet that "reporter" Seymour Hersh just wrote a book and was promoting it. And of course the details are in his book if you buy it.

    March 30, 2009 05:17 pm at 5:17 pm |
  5. phoenix86

    I also think that Obama should thank Hersh for coming out with this story at this particular time, when American outrage at the mishandling of the economy, more money for banks, etc. is growing.

    March 30, 2009 05:17 pm at 5:17 pm |
  6. Steve

    This has been going on in every presidential administration since the office was created. After the CIA was created, I'm certain that agency took it upon themselves to take out high value targets with or without the agreement of the President anyway. I cannot believe anyone would be surprised by this at all. Furthermore, don't expect this to change with current administration.

    March 30, 2009 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  7. jim Scheinle, Santa Fe, NM

    Another Reporter who thinks he can exploit the already receeding Bush-Cheney backlash, as well the willingness of CNN to support
    such individuals.

    To the hyprocritical perons, politician and judges who are "horrorized" by torture:

    – If a group of selected individual are confronted with a situation as follows:

    – it becomes known that terrorist will blow up a schooll with 100

    – it is highly probable that a prisoner member of a terrorist group knows where and when this would happen, but refuses to say so

    Would you not decide to submit such an individual to "torture", without
    inflicting permanent damage, for the case he is inocent of this particular inteneded crime ??

    Would you sacrifice 100 children only to spare discomfort to members of terrorist groups (including some mistake) ??

    If the answer is yes, YOU are a not less than a murder !!

    March 30, 2009 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  8. Susan, Wyoming

    What's so sad is that a crazy story like this is completely plausible given the utter amorality of the Bushies. Wish Congress would get a backbone and open an investigation.

    March 30, 2009 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  9. abn91c

    I'll bet that "reporter" Seymour Hersh just wrote a book and was promoting it. And of course the details are in his book if you buy it. By the way there is an Actual Joint Special Operations Command, its Based in Florida, they control the Army Special Forces, Navy Seals and USMC and Air Force Special Operations Command.

    March 30, 2009 05:21 pm at 5:21 pm |
  10. alvy singer

    Unfortunately, this kind of stuff is nothing new. Cheney drew from all the illegal CIA activity from the last 60+ years. But maybe they'll nail him.

    March 30, 2009 05:21 pm at 5:21 pm |
  11. proud army navy mom

    it absolutely sickening what Cheney and Bush were doing the last eight years in the name of "protecting" us. We needed protection from these war criminals. Somebody please charge them already.

    March 30, 2009 05:21 pm at 5:21 pm |
  12. Expat in Canada

    RD – Lawyers up here in Canada were drawing up plans to get Bush arrested when he spoke in Calgary. Didn't happen in time, but I don't think we'll see Bush traveling abroad.

    As for conservatives who toss around the word "socialism" at will, keep in mind your boy Cheney was running his own KGB. I don't think we all yet realize how close the USA was to becoming a totalitarian state.

    March 30, 2009 05:22 pm at 5:22 pm |
  13. AndrewR

    A secretive unit called the Joint Special Operations Command? You mean the one that's located Ft Bragg, NC, and advertises for jobs on plus hires contractors from places like L3 and BAH which also advertise jobs openly? Wow, sounds super-secretive to me! Perhaps Congress should get on the jobs sites and see what JSOC is doing, rather than having some bonehead never-served-in-the-military reporter try to drum up some falsehoods about what military professionals are doing on a daily basis to defend this country.

    March 30, 2009 05:22 pm at 5:22 pm |
  14. Moving Forward!

    I would think that before we all get so hot under the collar we should wait to see where this REPORTER got his info??? I mean really this sounds like some REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, BAD Hollywood B flick! I'm waiting for the usual annoucement that comes within a day or so after this type of story breaks which states (Hersh) got his info from an anonymous source which will give him ZERO credibility!!

    If this came from a former ADMINISTRATION offical I'd have more faith in the reliability of the story. Reporters are always lookin for "THE" scoop which will make their careers and unfortunately they always fall into the same trap! They forget to check the pool to see if it's filled before jumping in with both feet!

    March 30, 2009 05:22 pm at 5:22 pm |
  15. No Incumbents 2010

    The wing is called the Federal Reserve. The target- the American Economy.

    March 30, 2009 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  16. Is this news?

    Original poster leo s. : March 30th, 2009 5:00 pm ET

    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.

    –You can't handle the truth and neither can the American people. What you need to find is a good English teacher. Why don't you do that and leave the war fighting to people that can understand that it isn't pretty, just like seeing thousands die on Sept. 11, 2001 wasn't pretty.

    Understand that anytime you "expose" a "secret" unit to the public–IT IS NO LONGER SECRET! How do you expect to fight a war the takes infiltrating into a foreign populous undetected, when the enemy knows our secrets. Get a head on your shoulders then try again.

    March 30, 2009 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |


    They should be in Jail!!!!!!!!!!

    March 30, 2009 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  18. Viet Vet

    Well lt's see–Saddam was tried convicted and hung within 30 days of conviction according to Iraq law. Chemical Ali and Saddams brothers
    were tried convicted and within 30 days of convictions are still alive and going to other trials and convictions -against Iraqi law. Just sayin'........

    March 30, 2009 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  19. Charlie

    Wow. People will jump to all sorts of conclusions about the Bush administration, yet remain completely oblivious to negative information about their own messiah, Mr. Nobama. I wonder if they know that the March Madness Pool Expert has already spent more of taxpayer dollars in his first 2 months in office than Dubya did in 8 YEARS. Try to spin THAT one. That is not the way to erase the national debt like he said in his campaign "promises".

    March 30, 2009 05:26 pm at 5:26 pm |
  20. Kevin Denver Colorado

    jim Scheinle, Santa Fe, NM: My answer is a resounding YES'

    Anyone who in the name of freedom restricts the rights of the individual deserves neither rights nor freedom

    -Benjamin Franklin

    March 30, 2009 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  21. Daryl from Seattle

    Didn't you guys see? Everybody from Cheney to Bush denied anything to do with this story, so that has to mean it's not true right? Right....

    March 30, 2009 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  22. Gary of El Centro, Ca

    That our country actually had a "death squad" that reported directly to Cheney and nobody else is a little disturbing to say the least! He is the last person that should have the power to decide who lives and who dies.

    March 30, 2009 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  23. Chuck

    Now, I truly believe that Cheney was running the country in the place of the puppet Bush. Bush, not pardoning Scooter, only realized too late that Cheney had been manipulating him all these years. Pretty bad historical reflection on Bush to say the least.

    March 30, 2009 05:29 pm at 5:29 pm |
  24. JonDie

    Cheney is a notorious criminal and a liar. We all know that. He should be indicted and tried. Soon.

    March 30, 2009 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  25. Ryan S in KC

    This is despicable, and unfortunately, the countries who know we did this don't differentiate between moderates and far-right conservative wingnuts.

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