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Hats off to Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times for ferreting out what it was that sent CIA Director Leon Panetta scurrying over to Congress in late June.
According to Mazzetti, Panetta's top lieutenants, many of them holdovers from the last administration, had just told him that, under President Bush, they had farmed out assassinations to their Blackwater subsidiary. I use "they" advisedly, since the CIA holdovers that had kept Panetta in the dark continue to function as Panetta's top managers.
Panetta abruptly stopped the project and contritely briefed the intelligence committees. Until now, it was not clear what had prompted Panetta to set up hurried consultations with the intelligence "oversight" committees of the House and Senate.
An odd odor still hangs over the affair. After being briefed by Panetta, one committee member described him as "stunned" that his lingering lieutenants had kept information on the program from him until nearly five months into his tenure. Yet there is not the faintest hint that anyone on either committee dared to ask why Panetta continues to leave such tainted officials in very senior positions.
Anyone know why he does not send them packing?
Mazzetti quotes officials as admitting that "the C.I.A. did not have a formal contract with Blackwater" for a program with "lethal" authority. Putting out contracts on other people, I suppose you might call it, without a contract.
Bush administration lawyers were not the first to read considerable leeway into that loophole created by just one sentence in the language of the National Security Act of 1947. The sentence can be (ab)used as authorization for all manner of crime -- irrespective of existing law or executive order.
A Cheney-esque "unitary executive" perspective and a dismissive attitude toward lawmakers reinforced the Bush team's predilection to exploit the ambiguous language, taking it further than it had ever been taken in the past.
The Act (as slightly amended) stipulates that the CIA Director shall:
"Perform such functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the President or the National Security Council may from time to time direct."
There's the "umbrella contract." While more than one past President (I served under seven during my tenure at CIA) has taken advantage of that open language, the Bush administration translated the dodging into a new art form. This, in turn, was sustained by Frankenstein cottage industries like Blackwater to launch and operate the administration's own Gestapo. I use the word advisedly; do not blanch before it.
As for outsourcing, it is nothing new. The earlier Nazi Gestapo enjoyed umbrella authorization from the Fuhrer; they and the SS knew what was wanted, and famously "followed orders." There was absolutely no need to go back to supreme authority for approval to contract out some of their work. And German legislators turned out to be even more intimidated than ours -- if you can imagine it.
Charlatans Can Apply"and Some Stay On
As for an American President's freedom of action, all a President need do is surround himself with eager co-conspirators like the sycophant former Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet (not to mention his, and Panetta's, lingering lieutenants), who give allegiance to their secret world of unchecked power, rather than to the Constitution of the United States. True, a Vice President thoroughly versed in using the levers of power also can be a valuable asset.
But the sine quo non for successful subversion of our Constitutional process is this: cowardly members of Congress so afraid of being painted pastel on terrorism that they abdicate their oversight responsibility. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney may have "misunderestimated" some things, but not Congress. They held it in scorn and contempt, and the Congress' behavior gave them every reason to believe they were right.
The Bush White House gave very high priority to "terrorification" of Congress and it paid off handsomely. The most senior congressional leaders caved, winking even at torture, kidnapping, warrantless eavesdropping, etc., etc., etc.