July 15, 2009
Despite the new controversy over whether a global CIA "hit team" ever went operational, there has been public evidence for years that the Bush administration approved "rules of engagement" that permitted executions and targeted killings of suspected insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In effect, President George W. Bush transformed elite units of the U.S. military "" including Special Forces and highly trained sniper teams "" into "death squads" with a license to kill unarmed targets on suspicion that they might be a threat to American occupying forces.
In the recent public debate over whether Bush also authorized the CIA to assemble teams of assassins to roam the world hunting al-Qaeda suspects, the U.S. news media has cited the distinction between such face-to-face executions and the CIA's use of remote-controlled Predator drones firing missiles to kill groups of suspected insurgents in or near the war zones.
This reality surfaced in 2007 with the attempted prosecutions of several U.S. soldiers whose defense attorneys cited "rules of engagement" that permitted killing suspected insurgents.
One case involved Army sniper Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., who was acquitted by a U.S. military court in Baghdad on Sept. 28, 2007, in the murders of two unarmed Iraqi men "" one on April 27, 2007, and the other on May 11, 2007 "" because the jury accepted defense arguments that the killings were within the approved rules. (Sandoval was convicted of lesser charges relating to planting evidence on a victim to obscure the facts of the homicide.)
Another case of authorized murder of an insurgent suspect surfaced at a military court hearing at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in mid-September 2007. Two U.S. Special Forces soldiers took part in the execution of an Afghani who was suspected of leading an insurgent group.
Though the Afghani, identified as Nawab Buntangyar, responded to questions and offered no resistance when encountered on Oct. 13, 2006, he was shot dead by Master Sgt. Troy Anderson on orders from his superior officer, Capt. Dave Staffel.
According to evidence at the Fort Bragg proceedings, an earlier Army investigation had cleared the two soldiers because they had been operating under "rules of engagement" that empowered them to kill individuals who had been designated "enemy combatants," even if the targets were unarmed and presented no visible threat.
The troubling picture was that the U.S. chain of command, presumably up to President Bush, authorized loose "rules of engagement" that allowed targeted killings "" as well as other objectionable tactics including arbitrary arrests and indefinite detentions, "enhanced interrogations" otherwise known as torture, kidnappings in third countries with "extraordinary renditions" to countries that torture, secret CIA prisons, and "reeducation camps" for younger detainees.
Some Republicans have said Democrats proved that they don't have the toughness to defend U.S. national security by raising questions about the hit team, while pro-Democratic pundits note that the Bush administration apparently demonstrated its incompetence by failing to get the assassination program off the ground. In other words, the debate is centered on peripheral issues, not on the substance of extrajudicial murders.
Similarly, Attorney General Eric Holder is said to be leaning toward appointing a special prosecutor to investigate some CIA personnel for torturing detainees, but only if they went beyond the parameters of torture that had been spelled out by Bush administration lawyers. In other words, senior government officials who sanctioned limited waterboarding and other torture techniques would not be held to account, only overzealous interrogators who went even further.