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Unreality Check: Amnesiac Controversy Ignores CIA's Real Death Squads
15 July 2009
For more than half a decade, it has been an open, easily established, easily confirmable fact that the White House used the CIA as a death squad to kill people that it "suspected" of being terrorists. Yet here we are, in July 2009, wringing our hands over the alleged existence of "unrealized" plans to perhaps set up some kind of CIA death squad on the orders of Dick Cheney!
The unreality that has long pervaded American politics, policy-making and media reportage is by now almost totally impenetrable. Both action and analysis in the most powerful nation in history now take place in a fantasy world, a simulacrum, a state of permanent amnesia in which facts -- established, confirmed, published -- vanish almost in the very moment of their appearance. Anyone who tries to reason their way through this feverish hallucination is bound to fail -- or succumb to the madness themselves.
This hallucinatory quality of American public life has been on vivid display in recent days, with stories in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek and elsewhere about a secret CIA program to develop death squads to exterminate "top al Qaeda leaders" in Israeli-style "targeted assassinations." We are told that Dick Cheney was responsible for drawing up these plans -- and for illegally keeping them secret from Congressional oversight. We are also assured that these plans, promulgated by a presidential directive in 2001, "hadn't become fully operational" by the time that new CIA Director Leon Panetta terminated them after taking up his post earlier this year. The plans were developed, we're told, but never implemented. Still, the very fact of their existence is considered by some commentators as a grave scandal, one made even worse by Cheney's cover-up.
All of this is very curious. For the established, confirmed, published fact of the matter is that a CIA assassination program run by the White House on direct orders from the president was put into operation in late 2001. It was operative for many years (and might still be operative; we of course do not know what program Panetta actually terminated -- or if he really has terminated any program). Nor was this assassination program aimed solely at "top al Qaeda leaders": it targeted any number of "suspected" terrorists, whose guilt -- and sentence of death -- was arbitrary decided by the president, or by the agents in the field to whom Bush issued a literal license to kill. The first known victim of this CIA death squad was an American citizen, killed by a CIA-fired drone missile in Yemen. By Bush's own public admission -- in a nationally televised appearance before both houses of Congress in 2003 -- many "suspected terrorists" (his own description) had been killed by American agents.
None of this was secret. All of the above facts were reported in reputable, mainstream newspapers and journals -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the New Yorker, etc. -- beginning in October 2001. And these stories themselves were based on statements by Administration officials, who in many instances were eager to brag about "taking the gloves off" and other macho locutions. Or as one CIA operative in Afghanistan told the Boston Globe in 2002: "We are doing things I never believed we would do -- and I mean killing people."
For more than half a decade, it has been an open, easily established, easily confirmable fact that the White House used the CIA as a death squad to kill people that it "suspected" of being terrorists. (The use of such death squads was not limited to the CIA, of course. For example, in January 2003, the Pentagon's Special Operations Command was given the power "to kill and capture al Qaeda operatives and other terrorists," as the Washington Times reported. Stanley McChrystal, the man appointed by Barack Obama to command the war in Afghanistan, was the commander of these Special Ops forces in Iraq for several years.)
And yet here we are, in July 2009, wringing our hands over the alleged existence of "unrealized" plans to perhaps set up some kind of CIA death squad on the orders of Dick Cheney! And even this hallucination is riddled with unreality of its own: witness the emphasis on Cheney's involvement when even the new stories make clear that Cheney was acting on the authority of a presidential directive. George W. Bush is being written out of the picture; evidently he is to remain untainted even by the current spate of fantasy stories, which not only ignore the proven, acknowledged existence of actual, active CIA death squads but also Bush's central role in actually signing the directives that made the killings possible. Even if one buys the notion that Bush was a dimbulb who simply signed whatever the wily Cheney shoved under his nose, that does not absolve Bush of the moral and legal responsibility for these state-sanctioned murders.
But as I say, it looks as if even some of the most forthright Bush critics are not only writing Bush out of the equation with their focus on Cheney, they are also writing the death squads themselves out of existence, by taking the new set of stories at face value and pretending -- or forgetting? -- what these same newspapers reported just a few years ago.
And so the "controversy" over a non-actuated program whose non-actuality was covered up by Cheney rolls on, obscuring the blood-soaked reality of the real programme whose deadly effects were openly reported -- and, again, championed on the broadest possible public stage by the president himself.
It is, by any measure, a very strange, mind-bending state of affairs. Yet this is the way our world works now; and almost every earnest disquisition on politics and policy that we read -- from left, right or center -- is based on just this sort of hallucination.
* * *
Below is an excerpt of a column I wrote in 2005, summarizing some of the known facts about the death squads at the time:
You can also find more on the US-UK death squad operation in Iraq, and its lineage, in "Ulster on the Eurphrates: The Anglo-American Dirty War in Iraq."
Chris Floyd has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years, working in the United States, Great Britain and Russia for various newspapers, magazines, the U.S. government and Oxford University. Floyd co-founded the blog Empire Burlesque, and is also chief editor of Atlantic Free Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is republished here with the permission of the author.
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This story was published on July 15, 2009.
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