The Death Squads “Protecting” Our Country

There was an odd pair of stories in the WaPo last week. On Thursday, there was a story by two reporters on the CIA’s increased focus on killing its targets, whether by drone or paramilitary strike.

In the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the agency has undergone a fundamental transformation. Although the CIA continues to gather intelligence and furnish analysis on a vast array of subjects, its focus and resources are increasingly centered on the cold counterterrorism objective of finding targets to capture or kill.

Then, on Friday, there was an excerpt of the chapter from Dana Priest and Will Arkin’s book on JSOC. In addition to describing JSOC’s own lethality…

JSOC’s lethality was evident in its body counts: In 2008, in Afghanistan alone, JSOC commandos struck 550 targets and killed roughly a thousand people, officials said. In 2009, they executed 464 operations and killed 400 to 500 enemy forces. As Iraq descended into chaos in the summer of 2005, JSOC conducted 300 raids a month.

…. It also described how JSOC has been infiltrating DC’s bureaucracy.

Then he gave access to it to JSOC’s bureaucratic rivals: the CIA, NSA, FBI and others. He also began salting every national security agency in Washington with his top commandos. In all, he deployed 75 officers to Washington agencies and 100 more around the world. They rotated every four months so none would become disconnected from combat.

Some thought of the liaisons as spies for an organization that was already too important.

Both stories were good additions to earlier reports that have already laid this groundwork. But I found them notable for the way they were featured at the WaPo with nary a nod at each other. Sure, the CIA story noted that it has collaborated with JSOC. And the JSOC story talks about them feeding targeting information to CIA. Both stories claim their paramilitary force has the greater authority. Both at least mention Leon Panetta; the CIA one mentions David Petraeus; neither mentions Panetta and Petraeus swapping agencies.

But what we’re really talking about is an increasing focus on paramilitary approaches to security, using both JSOC and CIA, with the reporting agency seemingly chosen based on which offers the neatest legal cover.

The point, though, is to have super-lethal organizations unbound by the bureaucracy or law that puts limits to them.

And, as the CIA story admits, the civilian leadership–the President–matters less and less, at least in terms of receiving analysis (and presumably making decisions based on that analysis) or judging efficacy.

“We were originally set up with a more singular focus on policymakers,” said Moore, the head of the CIA’s analytic branch. But for a growing number of analysts, “it’s not just about writing for the president. It’s about gaining leads.”


“When CIA does covert action, who does the president turn to to judge its effectiveness?” a former senior U.S. intelligence official. “To the CIA.”

Which brings us to this David Swanson piece, relating an exchange Susan Harman had with Berkeley’s Law School Dean, Chris Edley. When asked why the Obama Administration had not prosecuted torture or wiretapping, Edley revealed the Administration was worried about the CIA, NSA, and military “revolting.”

“Then Dean Chris Edley volunteered that he’d been party to very high level discussions during Obama’s transition about prosecuting the criminals. He said they decided against it. I asked why. Two reasons: 1) it was thought that the CIA, NSA, and military would revolt, and 2) it was thought the Repugnants would retaliate by blocking every piece of legislation they tried to move (which, of course, they’ve done anyhow).

“Afterwards I told him that CIA friends confirmed that Obama would have been in danger, but I added that he bent over backwards to protect the criminals, and gave as an example the DoJ’s defense (state secrets) of Jeppesen (the rendition arm of Boeing) a few days after his inauguration.

“He shrugged and said they will never be prosecuted, and that sometimes politics trumps rule of law.

Now I’ve long suspected that Obama backed off all rule of law for both the national security establishment and the banks out of fear he’d end up like John F. Kennedy. And Edley’s comments, at least, don’t suggest Obama was worried the “revolt” would involve physical threats to himself.

Nevertheless, these three developments together really ought to be a worry.

We’re expanding two lethal paramilitary forces–death squads–that (taken together, especially) evade normal oversight. It’s not clear whether the civilian leadership controls them–or vice versa.

Is it really a good idea to make them even more lethal?

31 replies
  1. kbskiff says:

    Wondering when the first drone strikes on USA soil will begin.

    I assume the hit squads are already active to “protect” us from terrorists. Just a matter of time until they become political tools just as we trained our latin neighbors to use against their own citizens.

    America is going to a dark place.

  2. emptywheel says:

    Oh, and I forgot to point out in the post that David Petraeus is officially in charge of the CIA now.

    He won’t be worse than Mikey Hayden or–even more so–Porter Goss. But still!

  3. bmaz says:

    @EC Thompson MD: Four more years of a systemically failed presidency. Hard to see how Obama gains power and spine in lame duck years; which of course means this trend continues and intensifies.

  4. Bob Schacht says:

    Thanks for this important piece of work. I remarked on the previous thread that this looked like a piece of regulatory capture, where the agency that is supposed to be regulated essentially gets control of the regulators, spinning out of control. You certainly have added more fuel to that fire.

    Bob in AZ

  5. klynn says:

    Great post. Spot on observations, connections and questions.

    Thank you. A “perfect storm” on the Rule of Law.

  6. orionATL says:

    when i read the report of the cia having its own armaments (drones) for the firsr time in its history, my thought afterward was ” well, so the cia is where a coup will come from were there to be one”.

    next thought, ” that and the religious zealots who have infiltrated the u.s.air force”.

    but not to worry; i tend to be conspiratorial.

  7. SaltinWound says:

    Part of the job of being President should involve setting aside your own survival instinct when making decisions. There are billions of lives at stake, not just that of this one person. If he can not do it, he should not be President.

  8. rugger9 says:

    And, Petraeus is in charge of the CIA. He’s got political ambitions, and has shown no compunction in violating his military oaths to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic in his loss of the 9 billion dollars and a whole lot of AK-47 among several other sins. Mark my words, the end game of the PNAC crowd this time is a Petraeus administration.

  9. shocker says:

    I remember reading the first 3 parts of the “Top Secret America” series when it came out in the Washington Post over one year ago (July 19,20,21 2010). It struck me as a mind blowing expose’ of the,”under the radar,” anti-democratic, police state activities of our intelligence agencies. Honestly, I was surprised at the depth of detail included.(Sharing the headlines of those papers was the BP oil spill destruction of the Gulf of Mexico.)

    And over one year later another article of this series is published. I guess I’m just curious about the timing. Why did it take a year? It seems like these huge “revelations” come out and the problems are so large that no one can do anything about them. Time goes by and people forget or move on to other issues of the moment. The media can claim they did their job yet nothing happens.

    It seems the end result is that there is some kind of inferred, public acceptance or permission of (in this case) the “police state”.

  10. SaltinWound says:

    A partial list of people who are required to set aside their survival instinct every day would include soldiers, police officers, firemen and the Secret Service that protects the President. These people put their lives at stake, even in the heat of the moment. But with time to consider the greater good, in making measured decisions, their leader is not prepared to risk his own life? This is incredible to me.

  11. Peter VE says:

    In “The Road to Dallas”, David Kaiser suggests that Oswald’s “defection” to the USSR and his activity in Fair Play for Cuba were at the behest of our secret services. Santo Trafficante may have been the person who paid Oswald directly, but the blood is on many hands.
    How many violent men are we creating now, to be used by the highest bidder?

  12. emptywheel says:

    @shocker: Eh, the first three segments were actually a whitewash, leaving out such basic detail as that Lockheed Martin works with NSA< which is blatantly obvious to anyone who has taken the train to BWI. This is better, though not significantly more so than JSOC stories by Marc Ambinder, the Army Times, and Jeremy Scahill. Glad it's in the WaPo, but it is fairly tame. I do hope their book is better--I've got the utmost respect for both Priest (who's "The Mission" is one of the best books on foreign policy/nat sec out there) and Arkin (who has long led on digging through this stuff). I just think the WaPo has tamed whatever they've published.

  13. Mary says:

    “It’s not clear whether the civilian leadership controls them–or vice versa.” I think it is pretty clear. Civilian leadership does not control them. In some direct fashions (backing off overshight, getting Congress to provide fig leaves like the Patriot Act, amnesty, force resolutions, etc. to wrap like shrouds around the children whose lives are going to be taken, etc.) they may control civilian leadership, but really they and “civilian leadership” (and the media and academia etc.) are both controlled by the same sources. Greed and power. Personal greed and personal power.

    Assassains on one raid might kill for a greater good or purpose – assassains who over and over choose to dress in black and burst into homes and kill do it because the act has found a home in them.

    A lot has been written about the “Republican” strategy (although it seems more bipartisan on many levels to me) of seeking to destroy government and desire for governance as a “win” for their side. While that has a lot of interesting aspects, I think it skims a bit over the glaring issue that this has been coupled, over and over, with an absolute pouring of money into militarization and black budgets and the push to, on the one had prop up dictators and on the other to “spread democracy.”

    That gets to the who leads who issue some, imo. Not as a part of a deep conspiracy, but as a tide rises and sweeps everything, so that it is not so much who is leading as many being carried along. The tide is the growth of huge corporate entities that shape the world according to the profit features selected by hose who run the megaliths.

    The importance of weakening real government isn’t just that it affords political power to a few, to milk what they can individually from the nation, it’s to prevent government from interfering with those who are calling the tunes. If it’s good for the megaliths for countries to need bombers, then the conditions must be right for that need and the politics must allow for that need. (Btw, whatever happened to that secret, personal, army that was being run under cover of Lockheed contracs?)

    At a certain level, it’s good for the megaliths to have a huge army at their beck and call, better still if they aren’t paying for it but can use it as a profit center generator. I’s good for the megaliths to have a form of democracy – one tha allows them to impose the right to freely operate in a nation and exploit it under claims of law and right – imposed on lawless areas. Not a real democracy, but a form of one. It if is one where the Lockheeds “get the contract” from the military they already own to “train” the local populace in law, so much the better. A law where individual interests never trump corporat ones; where a court will turn away from even the most basic of constituational wrongs if they are committed on a grand enough scale – on a scale that can only be engineered by corrupt politics; a law where the most corrupt of the politicians actually own the prosecutors and their offices; a law that exists outside of national boundaries, shaped and applied for the benefit of the very very few.

    I don’t say that as a kind of conspiracy tale. It isn’t about secret meetings of illuminati. It’s about tides. The rises and falls of empires. It’s about choices all made by individuals as individuals and how they gain a life of their own. The thoughts about a flicker of a butterfly’s wing are esoteric, but what happens when, for example, a snakes rises up and begins striking within a herd of caged prey animals isn’t esoteric. All hell breaks loose. There isn’t any grand plan or scheme for the snake to not just kill its victim, but to also send the herd into a frenzy that causes it to break out of its bounds and run – run over a cliff, run over each other trampling the weak, run into the desert to die more slowly of thirst, etc. The snake didn’t plan all that, he just engaged in the act of self interest.

    At the human level, the difference is that the snakes don’t start life as snakes. They choose. Some choose only knowing, only realizing the gratification from the act of self interest. Others, though, have the ability to see more. They know what the act of self interes will cause – the stampede, the trampling of the innocent, the ultimate death of the herd. They know, but choose anyway.

    It’s not deep, dark conspiracies that are the danger we haven’t been able to avoid. It’s that individual choices, by individuals, have a multiplying effect. Of course the center can’t hold – no conspiracies needed. Just math.

    I probably should have more coffee before I hit post, but I guess we all make our own bad choices.

  14. rkilowatt says:

    A few items:

    Suggest read Fletcher Prouty’s The Secret Team for clear 1st-hand view of how “salting” and covert placement is accomplished.

    Recall that Death Squad training matured and was propagated via military’s School Of The Americas…and non-civilian foreign policy activity.

    Recall the Phoenix Project in VietNam.

  15. michaelfishman says:

    “Now I’ve long suspected that Obama backed off all rule of law for both the national security establishment and the banks out of fear he’d end up like John F. Kennedy. And Edley’s comments, at least, don’t suggest Obama was worried the “revolt” would involve physical threats to himself.”

    This paragraph seems internally inconsistent and contradictory. Did you mean “doubted” instead of “suspected”?

  16. shocker says:

    @emptywheel: I think Lockheed is probably their biggest advertiser.

    I know you’re far more familiar with the ins and outs of this than I am and I’m not in the habit of defending the Post. But going back and looking at those articles, they still come across as extremely damning to the entire intelligence sector to me. I’m sure they have left out quite a lot, but the insane redundancy and outrageous conflicts of interest described seem to pretty well communicate the extreme level of corruption
    Somehow that doesn’t get through to people, though.

    The fact that we are literally living in an out or control police state, run by private multi- national corporations, should be a “hair on fire” revelation to the citizens of a free democracy.

    From the 7/19/10 article:
    “Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.”

    “An estimated 854,000 people… hold top security clearances.”

  17. joberly says:

    @Mary: # 14. I’m glad you did hit “post comment.” Your images of the snake and herd, and the crucial distinction that humans become willing killers, mark a good improvement on the usual scorpion-stings-frog story.

  18. orionATL says:

    mary –

    nicely thought out and beautifully written.

    from my perspective, what’s missing in your summary is a concern for leadership. it is thru leadership (and “negative leadership” – bush and obama) that a society gets itself out of (and into) the kind of mess the u.s. society is currently in.

    the american spy squads, death squads, seal/delta heroe squads, assasination squads or whatever you want to call them, have as their principal purpose killing leaders. the leaders our assassins are killing are foreign and labelled as “the enemy”. we celebrate their deathswith headlines. but we really don’t know what good or ill our killing this leadership will do except that it will allow our politicians to “get out and declare victory”.

    these same assassination tactics could be used anywhere in the world by americans trained by us but later employed by others to destroy leaders and movements.

    within the u.s., federal and local police (cf. nypd spy units, fbi/doj spy and prosecute units) are actively working to destroy leadership of organizations opposed to some of the foreign and domestic policies of our “negative” leaders. this domestic destruction of leadership for the benefit of contemporary negative leaders like bush and obama is very corrosive and may serve in the end to entirely negate the one supreme benefit democracy has over other forms of govt – a means of changing rulers and rules.

    one thing seems clear: legal spy and prosecute or lethal spy and assasinate units have been institutionalized by u.s. govts.

    leaders are their targets.

  19. emptywheel says:

    @shocker: Fair enough. THe value of the piece was that it got big play in a top newspaper.

    I just got grumpy when it came out when a lot of people said it was groundbreaking, Pulitzer work. Tim Shorrock’s Spies for Hire was more comprehensive, and several years earlier. Plus, the WaPo backed off key issues out of deference to the natsec establishment.

  20. orionATL says:

    continuing –


    1. all operating in the name of national security

    2. all operating outside, or effectively outside, judicial review.

    3. all operating outside, or effectively outside, congressional oversight.

    the likelihood of abuse of these leadership destroying mechanisms seems to me to be extremely high. indeed they have already been severely abused.

  21. passepartout says:

    The US is starting to look a lot like Pakistan, with the CIA morphing into the same fear-mongering entity as the ISI.

  22. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Mr. Obama certainly behaved since his election, before he took office, as if the military-intel-security complex was untouchable, a given, a wave one rode while lying down on the board rather than standing up, lest one be ridden under by it. He does not appear seriously to have questioned its assumptions, power, activities or funding. As in his approach to the rest of official Washington and corporate America, he took it as he found it and gave it bipartisan support and a better foundation in practice if not in law.

    The popular threat analogy that comes to mind is Skynet. This threat is not an artificial intelligence that views humans as inherent infections. It is a distributed opponent, not a single threat. It is systemic, independent of individual actors, locations, operations, agencies or funding bills. It is a seemingly inseparable bonding between corporate and agency actions, personnel and money, a many-headed beast that cannot be brought to heel by reining in one or two of its obvious parts.

    More than one Jane and Jason and their argonauts will be needed to rein it in.

  23. orionATL says:

    with respect to the conversation between dean edley and susan hansen, cited by david swanson,

    i think edley and associates’ reasoning is not only morally cowardly but misguided.

    there have been a substantial number of high-level american military officers who have spoken publicly against torture.

    investigating torture would have strengthened their position as well as strengthened our military leadership in the future. (our soldiers have not yet paid the price for our torture – they will though, in some future conflict.)

    i would guess the real reason wasn’t fear of a revolt among the military – the prez is their commander-in-chief – but obama’s instinctual conflict avoidance and his serious misreading of what it would take in terms of public support, as opposed to congressional or corporate support, to get legislation passed that he wanted and the nation needed.

    thus, from day one of his presidency, obama refused to deal with two “legacy” issues from the bush disaster both of which needed to be dealt first and up-front – torture/govt corruption and joblessness/bank fraud.

    dealing with these issues first would have given the president the public support he needed to do battle with congress and corporations.

  24. shocker says:

    @emptywheel: I didn’t realize people were praising it that much at the time. I am more concerned that it seems to have almost been ignored.

    I saw on Raw Story where Janet Napolitano said Matt Drudge (of all people) “was “just wrong” to suggest the government was overreaching in its efforts to keep Americans safe.”

    Maybe she should read the Priest/Arkin book.

  25. Bob Schacht says:

    I saw Frontline’s The Secret War on PBS tonight. We’ve got not only a secret war, but a secret government– with a license to kill, and accountable to no one. Our “intelligence” agencies are now charged with *preventing* attacks, as well as finding criminals after attacks have happened. We are well on the way to Minority Report, except that the government in that movie had better predictors of criminal behavior (if nevertheless still fallible) than we do.

    And we wonder why Obama doesn’t just “clean it up?” He’s probably still trying to find out what “it” is.

    And who set up this secret government? Do you suppose Dick Cheney had a hand in it? Might Cheney just have access to all communications going in and out of today’s White House? Does Cheney have some Manchurian Candidates ready to launch?

    The eleventy-seven dimensional chess that some parody Obama for would certainly be necessary to get a handle on what’s going on in all those secret programs. Do you suppose there are some programs that are kept secret even from the President? Or at least that he does not yet know about? Or maybe programs that he does NOT have security clearance for?

    I’m afraid I’m going to have nightmares tonight.

    Bob in AZ

  26. Gitcheegumee says:

    @Bob Schacht:

    Glad you brought up the Frontline piece from last night. I watched it,also.

    I distinctly recall the brouhaha over the WaPo articles last year,and was curious to see the reportage this year,now that they are promoting their book.

    I will once again refer all here to the most excellent interview,in the same time frame last year,which EW hostessed with the aforementioned Shorrock. Well worth a review for those who may have missed it.

  27. Gitcheegumee says:


    FDL Talks Intelligence Contracting with Tim Shorrock | Emptywheel

    Jul 21, 2010 … The Washington Post has been turning lots of heads this week with a big series
    on intelligence contracting.…/fdl-talks-intelligence-contracting-with-tim-shorrock/

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