The End of Dick Cheney's Kill Squads

In March 2009, investigative reporter for the New Yorker Seymour Hersh caused a minor controversy by telling an audience in Minnesota that he had uncovered "an executive assassination ring" that the Bush administration operated abroad. "It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently," he said of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). "They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office." While reports for some time have indicated that the Obama administration has continued and even expanded military special operations throughout the world, it is now clear that he has increased oversight and ended the Bush-era practice running secret military operations directly from the presidential and vice president offices.

Since the final years of the Bush administration, JSOC has enjoyed a rapid expansion of duties from intelligence gathering to drone-spotting in Afghanistan to targeting high-value terrorists in places like Somalia and Yemen. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, confirmed that Vice President Dick Cheney would personally give orders to JSOC commanders, circumventing many levels of the chain of command. While the Obama administration has not been accused of similar practices, many reports have shown its increasing use of military special operations through JSOC and through Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which has authority over JSOC. Recently, The Atlantic reported that President Obama has authorized such operations across the globe, expanding the use of secret warfare and the authority of commanders far beyond that of the Bush administration.

However, Obama has made an important change to the Bush-era use of military special operations. Rather than operating as a single independent entity run out of the White House, the command of special operations has now been splintered and folded into the traditional chain of command, where it is overseen by regional military commanders as well as the State Department. The Atlantic reported that regional commanders, such General Patraeus of CENTCOM or General Ward of AFRICOM, now have authority over all special operations within their area of command. Today the Washington Post reports that the State Department has been granted oversight of the operations, which must be cleared by the local embassy. (It's unclear who at State, if anyone, would authorize operations in countries where the U.S. has no diplomatic presence, such as Iran.) This would explain why, in December 2009, the State Department began fielding media inquiries about JSOC.

There are still some reasons to remain skeptical of Obama's expanded secret warfare, which apparently still lacks judicial review for such controversial policies as JSOC's authority to kill at least one American citizen. Obama's legal authority to launch operations in 75 countries, all but two of which we are not at war with, is also questionable. However, President Obama appears to have brought important improvements in oversight and to have splintered JSOC's once unilateral authority. Whatever your feelings on the use of global secret warfare, surely Cheney's so-called "assassination" squads will not be missed.

Presented by

Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy. It's very organized."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Politics

Just In