Our Other Assassination Program: Mafia Hitmen Hidden from Congress

As part of my not-yet exhausted obsession with the government’s effort to obscure its drone assassination program, I re-read these two posts describing the assassination squads Dick Cheney set up but kept hidden from Congress. When Leon Panetta learned about it–and learned Congress had not been briefed–it set off a big scandal where, for once, Congress actually got pissed. The big scandal, we ultimately learned, was that the assassination squads had been outsourced in 2004 to Blackwater. And while actual approval for the program appears to have come in a September 26, 2001 directive following up on the Gloves Come Off Memorandum of Notification that authorized hit squads, its legal justification and logic parallels the drone program.

The Bush administration took the position that killing members of Al Qaeda, a terrorist group that attacked the United States and has pledged to attack it again, was no different from killing enemy soldiers in battle, and that therefore the agency was not constrained by the assassination ban.

But former intelligence officials said that employing private contractors to help hunt Qaeda operatives would pose significant legal and diplomatic risks, and they might not be protected in the same way government employees are.

[snip]

Officials said that the C.I.A. program was devised partly as an alternative to missile strikes using drone aircraft, which have accidentally killed civilians and cannot be used in urban areas where some terrorists hide.

Yet with most top Qaeda operatives believed to be hiding in the remote mountains of Pakistan, the drones have remained the C.I.A.’s weapon of choice. Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has embraced the drone campaign because it presents a less risky option than sending paramilitary teams into Pakistan.

Today, we learn that the guy who took the assassination program private, then CIA CTC Operations Director Ricky Prados, was a mob hitman whose murderous ways continued after he joined the Agency.

More startling, the Miami murders allegedly continued after Prado joined the CIA. One target included a cocaine distributor in Colorado who was killed by a car bomb. Investigators believed he was killed over concerns he would talk to the police.

Years later, in 1996, Prado was a senior manager inside the CIA’s Bin Laden Issue Station, before the Al-Qaida mastermind was a well-known name. Two years later, the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania elevated Prado to become the chief of operations inside the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, headed by then-chief Cofer Black, later an executive for the notorious merc firm Blackwater. “As the title implied, the job made Prado responsible for all the moving pieces at the CTC — supervising field offices on surveillance, rendition, or other missions, and making sure that logistics were in order, that personnel were in place,” according to Wright.

Prado was also reportedly put in charge of a “targeted assassination unit,” that was never put into operation. (The CIA shifted to drones.) But according to Wright, the CIA handed over its hit squad operation to Blackwater, now called Academi, as a way “to kill people with precision, without getting caught.” Prado is said to have negotiated the deal to transfer the unit, which Wright wrote “marked the first time the U.S. government outsourced a covert assassination service to private enterprise.” As to whether the unit was then put into operation, two Blackwater contractors tell Wright the unit began “whacking people like crazy” beginning in 2008.

I’ll grant you, there’s little that would beat the story of a Miami hitman running our CT program. Except has the drone program really evolved in such different fashion? There are, after all, contractors involved in the targeting process even if they’re not “whacking people like crazy.”

More importantly, the government not only refuses to disclose details of its drone program to us mere taxpayers, but they also refuse to answer very basic questions posed by Congressional overseers.

What is it, then, that distinguishes Dick Cheney’s secret mafia hitman-led assassination squad and John Brennan’s secret contractor assisted drone program?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

7 replies
  1. Jeff Kaye says:

    This is CIA SOP. Anyone in doubt can read the copious documentation of same in a number of books, most of which unfortunately are out of print, but are nevertheless obtainable. Two that come to mind are Warren Hinkle and William Turner’s book, The Fish is Red: The Story of the Secret War Against Castro. The other is Jim Hougan’s great book, Spooks: The Haunting of America – The Private Use of Secret Agents.

    The CIA is really not different than any other human enterprise, including criminal enterprises. They have a pattern of operating that can be and has been readily determined. We must not keep reinventing the wheel here, but make the connections to past behaviors so the public can be properly oriented. Otherwise, such revelations lead to the assumption that the exposure itself of the latest outrage will end the behavior.

  2. marc says:

    Why all this is coming out now is certainly fun to speculate. David Patreaus cleaning house? JSOC making a move to grab CIA turf? Security company competitors dropping a dime Afghan warlord-style to get rid of Blackwater/xe/Acadimi. I downloaded Evan Wright’s ebook from Amazon $2.99 and it is a real page turner.

  3. What Constitution? says:

    Wait, I saw this movie, too: “To Catch a Thief”, wasn’t it? Certainly was the premise for the 60’s TV series “It Takes a Thief”.

    Sheesh, let’s bone up on our Governmental Guidance Entertainment Library:
    (1) War on Terra engagement principles? True Lies (“Did you ever kill anybody” “Yeah, but they were alll baahd”);
    (2) Presidential authority in international relations?: Invading a sovereign capital to kidnap the chief executive — “We will no longer be afraid, it’s time for you to be afraid”);
    (3) Staffing government crime agencies? It Takes a Thief;
    (4) Presidential politics? Ides of March (“there’s only one thing you can’t do — you can’t fuck the interns”) (OK, maybe a little late on that one)

    My point being, couldn’t somebody pay some attention to a Sorkin vehicle? Just a little?

  4. rkilowatt says:

    From a study of prison populations:

    “… the whole atmosphere of every prison is an atmosphere of glorification of that sort of gambling in “clever strokes” which constitutes the very essence of theft, swindling and all sorts of similar anti-social deeds.” PKropotkin’s Memoirs, ca 1899

    IMO, “similar anti-social deeds” encompasses fraud, as misrepresentation of beingness, doingness or havingness. Consideration is given to what level a society tolerates/accepts.

    The practice of creating justifications receives enormous investment from spooks and banksters and all fellow criminals using such clever-strokes.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Mr. Obama has a more impressive brand than Mr. Bush, and he has legal authority Mr. Cheney never possessed. Mr. Obama also seems more committed to its excesses than the prior administration, just as the current Congress has shoved its collective head further into the sand.

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