... Let’s start with motive. In “What Went Wrong,” in the October 8, 2001, issue—on newsstands October 1, 2001, and reported as the dust was still settling at Ground Zero—a “C.I.A. man” spoke to Hersh about the need to consider tactics that “defy the American rule of law”:
“We need to do this—knock them down one by one,” he said. “Are we serious about getting rid of the problem—instead of sitting around making diversity quilts?”
Hersh picked up the story in “Manhunt,” in the December 23 & 30, 2002, issue. The piece began with the killing, by Hellfire missile, of an Al Qaeda leader named Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi. At the time, Bush Administration officials told reporters that Harethi was on a list of “ ‘high-value’ targets whose elimination, by capture or death, had been called for by President Bush.” A Yemeni official told Hersh that in the course of the operation there had been two intelligence “mistakes” that almost resulted in targeting innocent Bedouins.
Hersh went on,
The al-Harethi operation also marked a dramatic escalation of the American war on terrorism. For more than a generation, state-endorsed assassination has been anathema in the United States. In 1975, after revelations of C.I.A. efforts in the nineteen-sixties to kill Fidel Castro and other hostile foreign leaders, a Senate committee led by Frank Church concluded that such plotting “violates moral precepts fundamental to our way of life.”… In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed an executive order banning political assassination, and that order remains in force.
In the aftermath of September 11th, however, the targeting and killing of individual Al Qaeda members without juridical process has come to be seen within the Bush Administration as justifiable military action in a new kind of war, involving international terrorist organizations and unstable states.
On July 22nd, [2002,] Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued a secret directive ordering Air Force General Charles Holland, the four-star commander of Special Operations, “to develop a plan to find and deal with members of terrorist organizations.” He added, “The objective is to capture terrorists for interrogation or, if necessary, to kill them, not simply to arrest them in a law-enforcement exercise.” The manhunt would be global in its reach, Rumsfeld wrote, and Holland was to cut through the Pentagon bureaucracy and process deployment orders “in minutes and hours, not days and weeks.”
Hersh wrote that many of those he spoke to in the military and the intelligence communities have expressed alarm at the Pentagon policy about targeting Al Qaeda members. Their concerns have less to do with the legality of the program than with its wisdom, its ethics, and, ultimately, its efficacy.
Senior officers “argued that Rumsfeld’s plans would turn the military’s most élite forces … into hunter-killer teams”:
“They want to turn these guys into assassins,” a former high-level intelligence officer told me. “They want to go on rumors—not facts—and go for political effect, and that’s what the Special Forces Command is really afraid of. Rummy is saying that politics is bigger than war, and we need to take guys out for political effect: ‘You have to kill Goebbels to get to Hitler.’”
Later in the piece, Hersh writes:
In internal Defense Department memos, Rumsfeld and the civilian officials close to him laid out the case for a new approach to the war on terrorism, one that would rely, in part, on the killing of selected individuals.
In one such memo,
Rumsfeld was told, “We ‘over-plan’ for every contingency…. This denies us the agility and tactical surprise so necessary for manhunts, snatches, and retribution raids. We must be willing to accept the risks associated with a smaller footprint.” The paper urged the Secretary to “ensure that the military leadership understands fully the cultural change you seek.” The manhunting teams must be kept “small and agile,” the paper noted, and “must be able to operate clandestinely, using a full range of official and non-official cover arrangements to travel and to enter countries surreptitiously.”
What did this mean? A Pentagon consultant told Hersh:
“We’ve created a culture in the Special Forces—twenty- and twenty-one-year-olds who need adult leadership. They’re assuming you’ve got legal authority, and they’ll do it”—eagerly eliminate any target assigned to them. Eventually, the intelligence will be bad, he said, and innocent people will be killed. “And then they’ll get hung.”
A year later, in “Moving Targets” (December 15, 2003), Hersh wrote about assassination as a tactic in Iraq, where what had looked like a quick victory by American forces was beginning to look much murkier:
A new Special Forces group, designated Task Force 121, has been assembled from Army Delta Force members, Navy SEALs, and C.I.A. paramilitary operatives, with many additional personnel ordered to report by January. Its highest priority is the neutralization of the Baathist insurgents, by capture or assassination. The revitalized Special Forces mission is a policy victory for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who has struggled for two years to get the military leadership to accept the strategy of what he calls “Manhunts”…
But many of the officials I spoke to were skeptical of the Administration’s plans. Many of them fear that the proposed operation—called “preëmptive manhunting” by one Pentagon adviser—has the potential to turn into another Phoenix Program. Phoenix was the code name for a counter-insurgency program that the U.S. adopted during the Vietnam War, in which Special Forces teams were sent out to capture or assassinate Vietnamese believed to be working with or sympathetic to the Vietcong …
[A] former Special Forces official warned that the problem with head-hunting is that you have to be sure “you’re hunting the right heads.” ...