This is a little story about a potentially huge story that a lot of folks like myself want to be true but don’t know whether it is true. This little story also is about jumping to conclusions about that potentially huge news story, which had its public incubation at a college lecture last night and is now on a journey to super nova fruition or embarrassing fizzlement.
I write of investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s perhaps inadvertant assertion during an appearance at the University of Minnesota that a covert military unit attached to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) prowled the world killing people on orders of Dick Cheney.
This “executive assassination ring,” as Hersh termed it, allegedly reported directly to the vice president’s office, bypassing the defense secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff, had no congressional oversight and went into foreign countries without talking to the ambassador or CIA station chief.
As corroboration, Hersh pointed to a New York Times story that Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, the JSOC commander, had ordered a temporary halt to most commando raids in Afghanistan because of a growing concern that civilian deaths caused by American firepower were jeopardizing broader goals there.
Hersh is the preeminent investigative journalist of our time. He broke the story of the My Lai Massacre, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for The New York Times in 1970, and was the first journalist of consequence to draw attention to the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad in 2004 in a New Yorker magazine story. He also reported in the New Yorker that the U.S. was prepared to use nuclear weapons against Iraq and that there was a covert action plan in place against the Tehran regime.
So when Hersh mentions, even in passing, that the vice president had his own hit squad, he has to be taken seriously until when and if he is discredited.
Hersh himself later regretted spilling the beans, explaining in an email exchange with a Minneapolis reporter that the subject was “not something I wanted to dwell about in public,” that he is looking into it for a book that it may be a year or two before he has enough evidence “for even the most skeptical.”
But until that story can be fleshed out beyond anecdotal evidence that the squad operated in Afghanistan, which after all is a war zone, and faces and places where it may also have roamed that are not war zones can be confirmed, what we’re left with is a lot of wishful thinking from sites like Raw Story and bloggers such as Will Bunch and emptywheel, as well as the usual “this is just another Hersh fantasy” from the Weekly Standard and other unquestioning defenders of the Bush imperial power grab.
It should be noted that the Joint Special Operations Command has been anything but a secret since it was established in 1980 following the failed Desert One mission to rescue the hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. And even though its work is covert, it is an open secret that CIA and JSOC teams have been in pursuit of Al Qaeda and Taliban bigs since shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
What we do know about the obsessively secret — and I daresay obsessively evil — Cheney suggests that there is some truth to the story because the vice president would never let something like President Ford’s 1976 executive order prohibiting any employee or agent of the U.S. government to conspire or engage in political assassination, let alone any other order or law, stand in his way. That order was enacted in response to post-Watergate revelations that the CIA had tried multiple times to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro.
But this is not yet a Story of a Lifetime. It remains to be seen whether what on its face may be little more than a conspiracy theory gathers steam in the days and weeks to come — which is to say that Hersh himself fleshes out his assertion with a piece before he publishes that book that does not rely entirely on blind sources and deep background, and the mainstream media joins in, as well.
My inherent caution does not preclude my joining Bunch and others in noting that if the Cheney accusation stands up, then President Obama must shake off his much criticized diffidence about going after Bush administration wrongdoing. Cheney clearly will have broken the law and must be held accountable.
Shaun Mullen is a former The Moderate Voice columnist. Over a long career with newspapers, this award-winning editor and reporter covered the Vietnam War, O.J. Simpson trials, Clinton impeachment circus and coming of Osama bin Laden, among many other big stories. He blogs at Kiko’s House.