Sy Hersh is at it again, this time telling a University of Minnesota audience that Dick Cheney ran a super secret assassination ring. MinnPost‘s Eric Black reports that Hersh said this Tuesday night in a Q&A:


After 9/11, I haven’t written about this yet, but the Central Intelligence Agency was very deeply involved in domestic activities against people they thought to be enemies of the state. Without any legal authority for it. They haven’t been called on it yet. That does happen.
“Right now, today, there was a story in the New York Times that if you read it carefully mentioned something known as the Joint Special Operations Command — JSOC it’s called. It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. They did not report to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff or to Mr. [Robert] Gates, the secretary of defense. They reported directly to him. …

“Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on. Just today in the Times there was a story that its leaders, a three star admiral named [William H.] McRaven, ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths.

“Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.

“It’s complicated because the guys doing it are not murderers, and yet they are committing what we would normally call murder. It’s a very complicated issue. Because they are young men that went into the Special Forces. The Delta Forces you’ve heard about. Navy Seal teams. Highly specialized. [emphases all original]

Raw Story‘s Muriel Kane has picked this up and caused it to spread through the blogosphere.   Not surprisingly, perhaps,  bloggers on the Right, such as Jules Crittenden and Dan Collins, think Hersh is crazy as a loon while those on the Left, like Marcy Wheeler, Kathy Kattenberg, and “Jill Hussein C.” believe all this is not only plausible but likely.

Hersh has been a legend in the journalism business for four decades now but he has been known to tilt at windmills now and again.  He banged the “Bush is taking us to war with Iran any day now” drum loudly for years.  And even Hersh allows as to how  he feels less obligation to the facts when giving speeches than when writing.

On the podium, Sy is willing to tell a story that’s not quite right, in order to convey a Larger Truth. “Sometimes I change events, dates, and places in a certain way to protect people,” Hersh told me. “I can’t fudge what I write. But I can certainly fudge what I say.”

And in bending the truth, Hersh is, paradoxically enough, remarkably candid. When he supplies unconfirmed accounts of military assaults on Iraqi civilians, or changes certain important details from an episode inside Abu Ghraib (thus rendering the story unverifiable), Hersh argues that he’s protecting the identities of sources who could face grave repercussions for talking. “I defend that totally,” Hersh says of the factual fudges he serves up in speeches and lectures. “I find that totally not inconsistent with anything I do professionally. I’m just communicating another reality that I know, that for a lot of reasons having to do with, basically, someone else’s ass, I’m not writing about it.”

This is why Oliver Willis, a decidedly liberal commentator with no truck for Dick Cheney, says we should “take this ‘revelation’ with a silo of salt.”  I agree.

Still, what are the Larger Truths in these latest accusations?  The short answer, as usual, is that nobody but Hersh really knows. 

But he’s making two distinct allegations here, one with much more credibility than the other. First, he says, the CIA “was deeply involved in domestic activities against people they thought to be enemies of the state.”  Second, he claims, JSOC has “been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving.” 

Because he framed all of this under the header of an “executive assassination ring” under Dick Cheney, most will come away thinking that Hersh is charging the CIA with domestic assassinations.  He is not.  It’s not clear, really, what he’s saying.   It would, of course, be illegal for the CIA to be explicitly spying on Americans; the domestic counterterrorism role is the FBI’s. 

The idea that U.S. special operators are killing foreign nationals, on the other hand, is neither illegal nor necessarily problematic.  After all, when it gets down to it, killing people when necessary is their job description.   And killing the right people, rather than a bunch of them, is generally preferable.  Doing so without informing anybody can have some operational hazards but it does provide both operational security and plausible deniability.

On the same night Hersh made his remarks, another legendary journalist, Bob Woodward, told an Atlantic Council audience that the real story behind the turnaround in Iraq was not the Surge, or the Anbar Awakening, or any of the other things that we think it is.  Rather, he insisted, it was the heroic efforts of . . . wait for it . . . JSOC.   He cryptically told us that he could not tell us more or write about it because more information would put lives at stake.  

This, of course, led to much speculation by those in attendance.  I told my colleague Magnus Nordenman that my guess was that he was talking about targetted assassinations.  Because, really, what else would special operators be able to do that would have that much impact on the security of a country so vast as Iraq? That might well simply be a lack of imagination on my part but, since Hersh’s story adds a smidgen of additional evidence for it and speculation is all I have at my disposal at this point, I’m sticking with it until a better explanation comes along.

UPDATE: A bit of web searching reveals that Woodward has been making noises about JSOC for a while now, including in his most recent book, The War Within.  Commentary’s Max Boot provides this excerpt:

Beginning in the late spring of 2007, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies launched a series of top-secret operations that enabled them to locate, target and kill key individuals in groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias, or so-called special groups. The operations incorporated some of the most highly classified techniques and information in the U.S. government. . . . [A] number of authoritative sources say the covert activities had a far-reaching effect on the violence and were very possibly the biggest factor in reducing it.

So, my speculation about what Woodward was implying was both correct and unnecessary.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  

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