Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh raised eyebrows back in March when he told an audience at the University of Minnesota that Dick Cheney ran a secret hit squad that he kept hidden from congressional oversight.
"Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on," Hersh said at the time. He added: "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."
“I said what I said, they can always say what they say,” Hersh told The Daily Beast. “The last time they said the government doesn’t torture, this time it’s the government doesn’t assassinate.”
Some observers accused him of rumor-mongering and a top former military official threw cold water on the story, but with the recent news that the CIA allegedly kept Congress in the dark on a covert program, Hersh's words suddenly look more and more prescient. Yesterday, The New York Times reported the hidden program in question was a death squad authorized by Dick Cheney without congressional approval.
Now, there are key differences between Hersh's reporting and the Times' latest piece. Hersh suggested that the assassination ring was conducted out of the Joint Special Operations Command rather than the CIA. Moreover, according to Hersh's sources, the program was operational, leaving a trail of bodies, while the Times cited officials saying that the CIA hit squad never actually carried out a mission. The Times and Hersh could conceivably be reporting two distinct squads.
The Daily Beast tracked down Hersh in South Asia, where he says he has not been able to read the New York Times piece but has received calls buzzing about the report. Asked about the officials quoted in the Times' report who claimed that Cheney's assassination ring never became operational, Hersh offered a skeptical response.
"I said what I said, they can always say what they say," Hersh told The Daily Beast. "The last time they said the government doesn’t torture; this time it's the government doesn’t assassinate."
Hersh said that his words in Minnesota were exaggerated in the press, because he had previously reported on covert operations that he alleged were out of Congress' view. In February 2005, he published a report that the president had authorized Donald Rumsfeld to organize special operations in South Asia and the Middle East without going through the CIA, and thus not having to report them to Congress. In July 2005, he wrote that the White House circumvented Nancy Pelosi to organize covert operations led by retired CIA officers and non-government personnel to influence the Iraqi elections.
"In my reporting for this story, one theme that emerged was the Bush administration’s increasing tendency to turn to off-the-books covert actions to accomplish its goals," he wrote in the July 2005 piece. "This allowed the administration to avoid the kind of stumbling blocks it encountered in the debate about how to handle the elections: bureaucratic infighting, congressional second-guessing, complaints from outsiders."
As recently as July 2008, Hersh published a report that the White House was exploiting technical differences between Defense and intelligence operations in order to get around briefing Congress on pursuing "high-value targets" in Iran through covert action.
"There is a growing realization among some legislators that the Bush administration, in recent years, has conflated what is an intelligence operation and what is a military one in order to avoid fully informing Congress about what it is doing," he wrote then.
Beyond his own reporting, Hersh said President Bush's own speeches provided evidence of secret assassinations.
"Go read George Bush's January 2003 State of the Union speech," he said. "He's talking and he says we've captured and detained 3,000 al Qaeda members and other terrorists—crazy numbers—and said some of them will never bother us anymore. And Congress cheers."
Bush's full quote then was:
"All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. And many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way: They are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies."
This article was updated to reflect differences between Hersh’s story and The New York Times’.
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.