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.

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

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