The Origins of the CIA’s Assassination Program: Who Proposed It, What Its Code Name Was
by Kevin Fenton
July 15, 2009
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The CIA assassination programme that was recently in the media was actually first partially revealed by the Washington Post in 2005, when details enabling his originator to be identified were published. The programme made news in the last few days as CIA Director Leon Panetta admitted that the agency withheld information about it from Congress, although the CIA never actually used it to assassinate anybody. Nevertheless, the programme’s “duties” seem to have been taken over by something journalist Seymour Hersh called an “executive assassination wing” that was run out of the Office of Vice President Dick Cheney, and this grouping did go on missions and kill people.
The programme was first mentioned in Dana Priest’s groundbreaking article that highlighted the existence of the CIA’s network of black sites, CIA Holds Terror Subjects in Secret Prisons, which was published in November 2005. Priest wrote of the programme:
The CTC's chief of operations argued for creating hit teams of case officers and CIA paramilitaries that would covertly infiltrate countries in the Middle East, Africa and even Europe to assassinate people on the list, one by one.
But many CIA officers believed that the al-Qaeda leaders would be worth keeping alive to interrogate about their network and other plots. Some officers worried that the CIA would not be very adept at assassination.
"We'd probably shoot ourselves," another former senior CIA official said.
This section of the article was ignored at the time in the storm that grew over the CIA’s rendition programme and complicity in it by US allies.
The team was also mentioned by the New York Times’ James Risen in his 2006 book State of War:
In the intense atmosphere after the September 11 attacks, even more radical and questionable operations were considered and planned. One such secret activity was code-named Box Top. In 2002, according to CIA sources, the agency created a covert paramilitary unit whose mission was to go around the world to target terrorists. Whether the Box Top unit would have had the mandate to kill terrorists anywhere in the world or simply to capture them and bring them back through the rendition process is unclear. But after the unit was set up and began training, it was disbanded, and Box Top never went into effect. CIA sources suggested that the agency’s top management got cold feet over the prospect of turning the paramilitary unit loose.
That’s on page 35 of my copy (emphasis added).
Interestingly, Risen also mentioned the OVP/Pentagon teams that supplanted Box Top:
... Unlike the clandestine service of the CIA, Rumsfeld’s new covert units—given the benign-sounding name “operational support elements”—didn’t fall under the government’s existing rules governing covert action, rules that required explicit presidential authorization and congressional notification. In fact, the Defense Department didn’t seem to believe its special teams needed to tell anyone else in the government what they were doing, let alone coordinate their activities with the American ambassadors and CIA station chiefs in the countries in which they were planning to operate. Rumsfeld was creating his own private spy service, buried deep within the Pentagon’s vast black budget, with little or no accountability.
Before long, the State Department and CIA began to hear reports from ambassadors and station chiefs that special covert military teams were operating in Africa and elsewhere in the third world. In some cases, the embassies discovered their activities only by accident or at second hand. Whenever CIA officials complained to the Pentagon, they were told that the failure to notify them of the operations was an oversight and that the teams were simply conducting reconnaissance.
The new cowboys at the Pentagon were clearly asking for trouble. In early 2005, trouble came: members of an operational support element team working in Latin America killed a man outside a bar. The American personnel then failed to report the incident to the US embassy for several days. The incident has never been made public, but several officials familiar with the matter say it raises serious questions about the degree to which the Pentagon’s new secret teams are being properly managed.
I found that on pages 70-71. Risen therefore described both the programmes back in 2006, although he did not make the link between the non-implementation of the CIA programme and the implementation of the OVP/Pentagon version.
Although the CIA certainly does not have lists of its office holders, certainly not Counterterrorist Center (CTC) chiefs of operations, we have a pretty good idea who the chief of operations at the time was and what else he is responsible for (9/11, Osama bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora, rendition to torture--see the timeline link below).
In January 2007, Harper’s journalist Ken Silverstein wrote an article about a CIA officer he called “James,” giving a resume that indicated he was the CTC’s chief of operations on and shortly after 9/11. Given marked similarities in the biography of James and a CIA officer who goes by a variety of aliases (Rich/Rich B/Richard)—they both served in Algeria, were close to CIA manager Cofer Black, headed the CIA’s bin Laden unit, then had another managerial position at the CTC, became station chief in Kabul after 9/11 and got involved in the rendition of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi to Egypt—it appears that they are one and the same person. Therefore, it seems that Rich B was the officer who championed Box Top.
See here for a timeline of Rich B’s activities. Don’t miss his involvement in hiding information about the 9/11 hijackers—apparently including from his own boss—what he knew before 9/11, his part in rendition to torture before and after 9/11 and his responsibility for bin Laden’s escape from Afghanistan.
This is highly intriguing as it gives us an (as-yet indirect) connection between Rich B and Cheney, a connection I’ve been trying to make for some time: when the CIA sat on the programme Rich B proposed, it was taken up by Cheney, who also prevented Box Top from being briefed to Congress. Do I think this is a coincidence? No, I don’t. We know that both Rich B and Cheney were involved in the post-9/11 rendition and torture programs -- was there any link between them on that issue as well?