Two unnamed sources have told Aram Roston at Buzzfeed News that the Central Intelligence Agency has been sending small teams of commandos to assassinate suspected terrorists since Donald Trump plunked himself down in the Oval Office and put Mike Pompeo in charge of the agency. The program, the sources said, is overseen by the Special Activities Center (SAC), which is in charge of the agency’s paramilitary operations, and now overseen by a former commando. His name was withheld at the CIA’s request.
A secret CIA assassination program was planned soon after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, but reportedly never implemented under President George W. Bush. Though officials say no assassinations actually took place under the program, Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama’s first CIA director, revealed in June 2009 testimony on Capitol Hill that it had been contracted out to a familiar operation, Blackwater USA, the private mercenary army founded by Erik Prince. Panetta shut the allegedly unused program down shortly afterward.
But not everyone agrees that nobody was killed under the program, which was tasked to a scary guy.
About the latest claims, here’s Roston:
The two sources said that now CIA commandos are leading squads on missions to kill terrorists on the ground. “It’s a small number where it has been kinetic, but it is happening,” said one of the sources, a recently retired intelligence official familiar with the program. “Kinetic” is the euphemism often used for violent military action.
Both sources said that when Pompeo became director and first pushed for these lethal ground operations, there was resistance to this type of program from the military and the National Security Council. Later, though, they said, the effort was approved.
A CIA spokesman, Ryan Trapani, said, “Your story is wrong.”
Of course, the CIA has a long history of claiming it’s not doing what it clearly has been doing. It repeatedly claimed that it didn’t engage in torture either. And yet it put together its own manuals on the subject, most notoriously, a 128-page secret how-to-torture guide distributed in July 1963 called Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation, and a 1983 publication, the Human Resources Exploitation Manual, designed for use by the Honduran military. Many of the techniques described in that document show up again in 2002, when U.S. interrogators used them to break down suspected terrorists it had captured and dragged off to secret prisons in various countries, including Poland and Thailand.
In all these cases, the CIA denied and evaded until the subject matter vanished from public consciousness. A full copy of the 1983 manual wasn’t pried loose from the agency via Freedom of Information Act requests until 1997.
Obviously, nobody is saying how many assassinations may have been carried out by the CIA, nor who has been targeted, since Trump came into office. Such information is likely to remain classified well into the future if it is ever released. Some CIA records have a way of disappearing. (See videotapes: Haspel).
Roston goes on to note:
The SAC chief is an old friend of Louis W. Bremer, a top manager at powerful private equity fund Cerberus Capital Management. The two attended the Air Force Academy at the same time. Cerberus, which has invested heavily in military and intelligence contracting companies, is headed by Stephen Feinberg, a Trump ally who reportedly pushed to use contractors rather than uniformed armed forces in Afghanistan, and to “give the C.I.A. control over operations in Afghanistan,” according to a New York Times article last summer. Erik Prince, founder of the private security firm Blackwater and brother of Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos, has been pushing a similar plan.
Feinberg and Bremer, according to the Atlantic’s Rosie Gray, had been to the Trump White House and “have influence at the CIA.”
The Obama administration backed off from using on-the-ground hit teams but heightened the number of missile launches from drones. Critics have blasted that policy for the number of civilians said to be killed by missiles that go astray or hit their intended targets but nevertheless cause a lot of what the military sickeningly calls “collateral damage.” The number of civilians killed is unknown, but the government has consistently and deeply downplayed the tally.
CIA assassinations are not simply a response to the 9/11 attacks. The agency has a long history in that realm. The most lethal was its Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War. Phoenix employed torture, rape and murder to “neutralize” more than 80,000 Vietnamese civilians suspected of being part of, or sympathetic to,“Vietcong” foes of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government. Between 26,000 and 41,000 of these civilians were murdered.