Hats off to Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times for reporting that it was after CIA Director Leon Panetta’s holdover lieutenants finally told him that, under President Bush, they had farmed out assassinations to their Blackwater subsidiary, that he abruptly stopped the project and told Congress.
I use “they” advisedly, since the CIA officials who had kept Panetta in the dark continue to function as Panetta’s top managers at the agency.
Until now, it was not clear what prompted Panetta to set up hurried consultations in late June with the intelligence oversight committees of the House and Senate. And an odd odor still hangs over the affair.
After being briefed by Panetta, one committee member described him as “stunned” that his lingering lieutenants had kept information on the program from him until nearly five months into his tenure.
And yet there is not the faintest hint that anyone on either committee dared to ask why Panetta continues to leave such tainted officials in very senior positions.
Mazzetti quotes officials as admitting that “the C.I.A. did not have a formal contract with Blackwater” for a program with “lethal” authority.
What Mazzetti does not mention — and what he, like the vast majority of Americans, may not know — is that there is a one-sentence umbrella “contract” available for use as authorization for such activities. It is a legal loophole of sorts, through which Bush and Cheney drove a Mack truck.
Bush administration lawyers were not the first to read considerable leeway into that loophole — one sentence in the language of the National Security Act of 1947. The sentence can be (ab)used as authorization for all manner of crimes — irrespective of existing law or executive order.
A Cheney-esque “unitary executive” perspective and a dismissive attitude toward lawmakers reinforced George W. Bush’s predilection to exploit this ambiguous language, taking it further than it had ever been taken in the past.
The Act (as slightly amended) stipulates that the CIA Director shall:
“Perform such functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the President or the National Security Council may from time to time direct.”
There’s the “umbrella contract.” While more than one past President (I served under seven during my tenure at CIA) has taken advantage of that open language, the Bush administration translated the dodging into a new art form.
This, in turn, was sustained by Frankenstein cottage industries like Blackwater to launch and operate the administration’s own Gestapo. I use the word advisedly; do not blanch before it.
As for outsourcing, the Nazi Gestapo enjoyed umbrella authorization from the Fuhrer; they and the SS knew what was wanted, and famously “followed orders.”
There was absolutely no need to go back to supreme authority for approval to contract out some of their work. German legislators turned out to be even more intimidated than ours — if you can imagine it.
As for an American President’s freedom of action, all a President need do is surround himself with eager co-conspirators like the sycophant former Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, (not to mention his, and Panetta’s, lingering lieutenants) who give allegiance to their secret world of unchecked power, rather than to the Constitution of the United States.
True, a Vice President thoroughly versed in using the levers of power can be a valuable asset. But the sine quo non for successful subversion of our Constitutional process is this: cowardly members of Congress so afraid of being painted pastel on terrorism that they abdicate their oversight responsibility.
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney made “terrorification” of Congress a high priority, and congressional leaders caved, winking even at torture, kidnapping, warrantless eavesdropping, etc., etc., etc.
Speaking of contracting, Congress’ oversight role was, in a very real sense, “contracted out” — to eight invertebrate leaders from the House and Senate whose unconscionable, see-no-evil acquiescence was driven solely by their felt need to appear tough on terrorism.
“After 9/11 everything changed,” is certainly an overused aphorism. But it does apply to the spirit and soul of our country, after President Bush was given the pulpit at National Cathedral.
Vengeance is ours, said the President. And the vast majority of Christian leaders were cowed into razoring out of their Bibles “Blessed are the Peacemakers.”
The clergy clapped, and so did the Congress and the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM). Don’t you remember?
The situation bears a striking resemblance to that described by writer Sebastian Haffner in Berlin in 1933 after the Reichstag fire (Germany’s 9/11):
“What was missing is what in animals is called ‘breeding.’ This is a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures, something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle, and dignity to be drawn on in the hour of trial. It is missing in Germans.
“As a nation they are without backbone. That was shown in March 1933. At the moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to the occasion, the Germans collectively and limply collapsed, yielded to a nervous breakdown, and became a nightmare to the rest of the world.” [Defying Hitler, p. 135]
And our Congress? During the President’s infamous State-of-the-Union address on Jan. 28, 2003 (yes, the one with the uranium-from-Africa-to-Iraq and other make-believe), Bush got the most unbridled applause when, after bragging about the 3,000 “suspected terrorists” whom he said had been arrested, he added:
“And many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way: They are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.”
The lawmakers’ reaction and the cheering that followed in the FCM reminded me of the short italicized note that Pravda regularly tacked onto the bottom of paragraphs recording the text of similarly fulsome leadership speeches: Burniye aplaudismenti; vce stoyat! — Stormy applause; all rise!
Even so, Soviet leaders generally avoided (as not quite presidential) the seeking of applause for thinly veiled allusions to extrajudicial killing.
It is Congress that is collectively responsible for abdicating its oversight responsibility, while cheering on creeps like Cofer Black, CIA’s top counter-terrorism official from 1999 to May 2002 and now one of Blackwater’s senior leaders.
In his prepared testimony to a joint congressional 9/11 inquiry on Sept. 26, 2002, the swashbuckling Black said this about “operational flexibility”:
"All I want to say is that there was ‘before’ 9/11 and ‘after’ 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves came off. ... I know that we are on the right track today and as a result we are safer as a nation. ‘No Limits’ aggressive, relentless, worldwide pursuit of any terrorist who threatens us is the only way to go and is the bottom line.”
What were those “gloves” to which you referred, Mr. Black? Do you mean that legal restrictions were gone? And “No Limits?” Is it the case that there now are no limitations on your pursuit of terrorists?
From what do you derive that kind of authorization, Mr. Black? These are just sample questions that, apparently, occurred to none of the congressional inquiry members to ask.
And authorization? In the Bush/Cheney White House, all it took was a presidential signature, like that appearing in strokes of large felt-tipped pen under the two-page executive memorandum of Feb. 7, 2002.
Last December the Senate Armed Forces Committee, without dissent, concluded that this memo, “opened the door” to abusive interrogation by exempting al Qaeda and Taliban detainees from Geneva protections. Alberto Gonzales, in an inadvertent blunder, released that memo five years ago.
Special presidential memos (often referred to as “Findings”) authorizing covert action like the lethal activities of the CIA and Blackwater have not yet surfaced. They will, in due course, if the patriotic truth tellers who have now spoken to the Times and the Washington Post about CIA and Blackwater continue to put the Constitution and courage above secrecy oaths.
CIA operative Gary Schroen told National Public Radio that, just days after 9/11, Cofer Black sent him to Afghanistan with orders to “Capture bin Laden, kill him, and bring his head back in a box on dry ice.” As for other al Qaeda leaders, Black reportedly said, “I want their heads up on pikes.”
Schroen told NPR he had been stunned that, for the first time in 30 years of service, he had received orders to kill targets rather than to capture them. Contacted by the radio network, Black would not confirm the exact words of the order to Schroen, but did not dispute Schroen’s account.
This quaint tone reverberated among macho pundits in the FCM. Washington Post veteran Jim Hoagland, who was extremely well plugged in to the Bush administration, on Oct. 31, 2001, wrote an open letter to President Bush.
Apparently no Halloween prank, Hoagland strongly endorsed the wish for “Osama bin Laden’s head on a pike,” a wish he attributed to Bush’s “generals and diplomats.” The consummate insider, Hoagland then almost gave the real game away, giving Bush a list of priorities:
“The need to deal with Iraq’s continuing accumulation of biological and chemical weapons and the technology to build a nuclear bomb can in no way be lessened by the demands of the Afghan campaign. You must conduct that campaign so that you can pivot quickly from it to end the threat Saddam Hussein’s regime poses.”
I have the feeling we are in for many more chapters recording how the savage mood in Washington played out during the last seven years of the Bush/Cheney administration.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He is a 27-year veteran analyst of the CIA and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.
Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.
This story was published on August 21, 2009.