As Dana Priest of the Washington Post reports, the CIA has developed unprecedented secret programs based on unilateral Administration reinterpretations of long-standing law:
GST includes programs allowing the CIA to capture al Qaeda suspects with help from foreign intelligence services, to maintain secret prisons abroad, to use interrogation techniques that some lawyers say violate international treaties, and to maintain a fleet of aircraft to move detainees around the globe. Other compartments within GST give the CIA enhanced ability to mine international financial records and eavesdrop on suspects anywhere in the world.
Over the past two years, as aspects of this umbrella effort have burst into public view, the revelations have prompted protests and official investigations in countries that work with the United States, as well as condemnation by international human rights activists and criticism by members of Congress.
Still, virtually all the programs continue to operate largely as they were set up, according to current and former officials. These sources say Bush's personal commitment to maintaining the GST program and his belief in its legality have been key to resisting any pressure to change course.
"In the past, presidents set up buffers to distance themselves from covert action," said A. John Radsan, assistant general counsel at the CIA from 2002 to 2004. "But this president, who is breaking down the boundaries between covert action and conventional war, seems to relish the secret findings and the dirty details of operations."In other words, Bush likes to play dirty -- which should hardly be a surprise, considering how he pursues his political campaigns.
--Which perhaps explains why the Bush Administration tossed out the Geneva Conventions from the get-go.
"Everything is done in the name of self-defense, so they can do anything because nothing is forbidden in the war powers act," said one official who was briefed on the CIA's original cover program and who is skeptical of its legal underpinnings. "It's an amazing legal justification that allows them to do anything," said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues.Amazing indeed. One begins to wonder if this president will deign to step down when his term ends in 2009 -- if he even lets us have elections.
The presidential finding also permitted the CIA to create paramilitary teams to hunt and kill designated individuals anywhere in the world, according to a dozen current and former intelligence officials and congressional and executive branch sources.In other words, the CIA set up global death squads. Presumably this is not part of the "winning the hearts and minds of Muslims" plan.
In four years, the GST has become larger than the CIA's covert action programs in Afghanistan and Central America in the 1980s, according to current and former intelligence officials. Indeed, the CIA, working with foreign counterparts, has been responsible for virtually all of the success the United States has had in capturing or killing al Qaeda leaders since Sept. 11, 2001.Setting aside how many innocents were killed in the process, this secret war on al-Qaeda seems to beg the question of why the War on Iraq is supposed to be the "front line on terror."
But it seems the real front line has been engaged by lawyers.
Tenet, according to half a dozen former intelligence officials, delegated most of the decision making on lethal action to the CIA's Counterterrorist Center. Killing an al Qaeda leader with a Hellfire missile fired from a remote-controlled drone might have been considered assassination in a prior era and therefore banned by law.
But after Sept. 11, four former government lawyers said, it was classified as an act of self-defense and therefore was not an assassination. "If it was an al Qaeda person, it wouldn't be an assassination," said one lawyer involved.Seems like an awfully loosey goosey standard for using lethal force.
Refining what constitutes an assassination was just one of many legal interpretations made by Bush administration lawyers. Time and again, the administration asked government lawyers to draw up new rules and reinterpret old ones to approve activities once banned or discouraged under the congressional reforms beginning in the 1970s, according to these officials and seven lawyers who once worked on these matters.Some years ago, Republicans jumped all over Bill Clinton on his question of interpretation of the word "is." Now we have a Republican president throwing out years of settled precedent to reinterpret standing laws to suit his own ends.
The White House tightened the circle of participants involved in these most sensitive new areas. It initially cut out the State Department's general counsel, most of the judge advocates general of the military services and the Justice Department's criminal division, which traditionally dealt with international terrorism.
"The Bush administration did not seek a broad debate on whether commander-in-chief powers can trump international conventions and domestic statutes in our struggle against terrorism," said Radsan, the former CIA lawyer, who is a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. "They could have separated the big question from classified details to operations and had an open debate. Instead, an inner circle of lawyers and advisers worked around the dissenters in the administration and one-upped each other with extreme arguments."Actually, that sounds like your typical conservative think-tank, doesn't it? You know, the kind of brilliant brainstorming that spawned the neo-con fantasies that once we bombed and invaded Iraq the people would welcome us with flowers; the kind of brilliant brainstorming that led to the firing of military generals who argued that occupying Iraq would take many times more troops than the neo-cons wanted to use; the kind of brilliant brainstorming that led leaders to treat 9/11 as an opportunity for political extortion, grandstanding and bullying all in the name of patriotism.
--The kind of brainstorming that wouldn't pass muster in a university that required one to address dissenting views and have reasons.