A secret “black budget” government project used CIA and NSA resources to help Colombian officials target and assassinate top leaders of the long-running Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), The Washington Post reports.

The assistance, which included pinpointing targets, helped the Colombian government kill at least two dozen rebel leaders, the Post said, citing interviews with some 30 former and current U.S. and Colombian officials. From the Post:

The secret assistance, which also includes substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency, is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. It is not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid called Plan Colombia, which began in 2000.

The previously undisclosed CIA program was authorized by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s and has continued under President Obama, according to U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program is classified and ongoing.

The covert program in Colombia provides two essential services to the nation’s battle against the FARC and a smaller insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN): Real-time intelligence that allows Colombian forces to hunt down individual FARC leaders and, beginning in 2006, one particularly effective tool with which to kill them.

That weapon is a $30,000 GPS guidance kit that transforms a less-than-accurate 500-pound gravity bomb into a highly accurate smart bomb. Smart bombs, also called precision-guided munitions or PGMs, are capable of killing an individual in triple-canopy jungle if his exact location can be determined and geo-coordinates are programmed into the bomb’s small computer brain.

FARC has been locked in guerrilla battles with the Colombian government (they’re now in peace talks) since the group began in 1964 as a small Marxist organization seeking land reforms and other aid to the poor. Its violence, and the government’s strong-arm repression, combined with the rise of violent cocaine cartels made Colombia among the world’s most dangerous and unstable nations.

Under the Bush administration, aid to Colombia — both overt and, apparently, covert — increased, leading to the involvement of the CIA and the NSA in the targeted strikes. The program has continued under the Obama administration, the Post reports. The early work was done beginning in 2003 from a clandestine location in Colombia dubbed the “bunker,” and in essence was a broadening of the techniques being used to hunt down al-Qaida. At least the administration recognized there might be a legal and moral line involved somewhere. According to the Post:

It was one thing to use a PGM to defeat an enemy on the battlefield — the U.S. Air Force had been doing that for years. It was another to use it to target an individual FARC leader. Would that constitute an assassination, which is prohibited by U.S. law? And, “could we be accused of engaging in an assassination, even if it is not ourselves doing it?” said one lawyer involved.

The White House’s Office of Legal Counsel and others finally decided that the same legal analysis they had applied to al-Qaeda could be applied to the FARC. Killing a FARC leader would not be an assassination because the organization posed an ongoing threat to Colombia. Also, none of the FARC commanders could be expected to surrender.

And, as a drug-trafficking organization, the FARC’s status as a threat to U.S. national security had been settled years earlier with Reagan’s counternarcotics finding. At the time, the crack cocaine epidemic was at its height, and the government decided that organizations that brought drugs to America’s streets were a threat to national security.

So yes, the U.S. government secretly asked itself if it was legal to be involved in killing leaders of a terrorist group that did not pose a direct threat to the U.S., and advised itself that yes, it could.

Remember, that was the same legal department that told the White House that it was not against the law to use torture.

—Posted by Scott Martelle.

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