by Jacob G. Hornberger
As most everyone knows, the CIA has been assassinating people practically since the time it was formed in 1947. By and large, however, the CIA kept its assassinations secret. Americans, for their part, had a feeling that such things were being done but didn’t ask any questions.
The system was almost in the nature of a secret, unannounced pact between the government and the people. As part of its job to protect “national security,” the government would have the omnipotent authority to assassinate people, but it would keep its assassinations secret from the citizenry. In that way, the citizenry would be shielded from the unsavory things that government would be doing in the name of “national security,” and citizens wouldn’t have to concern themselves with things like conscience.
The principle, of course, has been the same with respect to torture. For decades, the Pentagon was secretly teaching soldiers the principles of torture, including at its infamous School of the Americas.
Every once in a while, there would be some public disclosure regarding the assassination program or the torture program. For example, there was the infamous Phoenix program during the Vietnam War, where tens of thousands of Vietnamese people were tortured or killed. There were the CIA’s repeated assassination attempts against Cuba’s president Fidel Castro. There was the discovery of the Pentagon’s torture manuals that were being used at the School of the Americas.
When such things would become public, there would be tremendous shock within the citizenry, especially the mainstream media. Investigations would be called. Committees would be impaneled. Confessions and apologies and promises not do it again would issue. The citizenry would be satisfied. Everything would return to “normal.”
No one seemed to notice that through it all — from 1947 through the present date — the U.S. national security state was supporting and training the intelligence and military forces of foreign dictatorships that were brutalizing their own citizenry with things like arbitrary arrest, torture, and assassination. Look at Latin America, for example, where in the name of “anti-communism” and “national security,” both the CIA and the Pentagon were partnering with and training brutal dictatorships, especially military ones. Or look at the Middle East, where much of the same thing has been going on.
Why were the Pentagon and the CIA supporting, training, and partnering with such dictatorships? Because they believed in them! They honestly believed that such dictatorships were necessary to hold back the “communist threat” and to protect the “national security” of the United States. In fact, one of their models was the Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile, which they helped bring into existence, because it favored “capitalism” while, at the same time, arresting, torturing, and killing “communists” without having to deal with such judicial niceties as trials, due process, and the like.
Throughout the Cold War, the CIA and the Pentagon must have been envious of those foreign dictatorial regimes. After all, such regimes could exercise their powers openly and above board. They didn’t need to hide them. In Latin America, for example, death squads consisting of U.S.-trained soldiers and intelligence personnel were arresting people, raping them, torturing them, and killing them or simply assassinating them. And they were doing so openly to protect their “national security” from the “communists.”
Or consider the rendition/torture partnerships between the U.S. government and the dictatorships in such countries as Egypt, Syria, and Libya. There is a reason that the Pentagon and the CIA chose those countries to torture its victims — they’re good at it, and U.S. officials knew that there were good at it. This is especially true in the case of Egypt, whose military and intelligence forces have long worked closely with the U.S. national security state. Moreover, for decades the U.S. government has helped support Egypt’s military dictatorship with billions of dollars in money and armaments.
Of course, 9/11 changed all that. No longer would the Pentagon and the CIA have to keep secret their torture and assassination programs. Like their counterparts in Latin America and the Middle East, they could now be open and above board, at least with respect to wielding such powers, if not also the exercise of them.
The Constitution, of course, does not delegate to the federal government the powers to take people into custody, torture and abuse them, and kill them. There is also no power to assassinate people. In fact, the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits the government from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, trial by jury, right to counsel, and other such procedures. It also protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures, especially without judicially issued warrants. It guarantees speedy trials and prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.
So, how did the CIA and the Pentagon acquire such powers? No, there was no constitutional amendment. They simply assumed the powers, without even the semblance of a constitutional amendment. That was the secret pact between them and the American people during the Cold War. “We now wield these powers that the Constitution prohibits us from exercising,” U.S. officials effectively said, “but we must exercise them to keep you safe from the communists. Don’t worry: we will exercise them secretly and surreptitiously so that it will appear that nothing has changed in a fundamental way.”
Thus, throughout the Cold War Americans continued innocently believing that they were living in a free country, one in which the government’s powers were limited by the Constitution, even though deep down everyone knew that the government was now secretly wielding powers that were inherent to brutal dictatorships.
Then came 9/11, the critical event that enabled the secret arrangement to now be made public. The Pentagon and the CIA were now on the same level as the dictatorships that they had long supported and trained. Like their counterparts in those regimes, they could now be as open about their powers as their foreign dictatorships had been. 9/11 enabled the Pentagon and the CIA to not only openly disclose that they wielded such powers, it also enabled them to openly exercise them without any fear or concern that they might ultimately be held criminally liable.
For decades, Americans lived under the quaint notion that the national-security state would exercise such powers only against foreigners. With the arrest, torture, and assassination of Americans in the post-9/11 era, it’s finally starting to dawn on many Americans that they stand in no different position, in principle, from the citizenry in those U.S.-supported dictatorships in Latin America and the Middle East.
Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.
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