Politics & Law

A crime puzzle: Violent crime declines in America

Claude Fischer

Violent crime went down in America again last year. According to preliminary statistics from the FBI, the number of violent crimes dropped by about 5 percent from 2008 to 2009. Given population growth, that means that the rate of violent crime dropped even more. (So did property crime.)

This is a puzzle because (a) violent crime is more common among the poor; (b) the percentage of Americans who are poor has been trending up since about 2000; and (c) the economy tanked last year. One would have expected a rise, not a fall, in violent crime.

But this head-scratcher is just part of a larger puzzle – understanding long-term trends in America’s criminal violence.

Murder History

The most reliable measure of violent crime is the homicide rate. Americans kill one another at a much higher rate – double, quadruple, or more – than do residents of comparable western European nations. This gap persists despite a roughly 40 percent drop in our homicide rate in the last 15 years or so. Americans have been notably more violent than western Europeans since about the mid- or late 19th century.

This graph shows the American homicide rate over the last century-plus.

The puzzle compounds. We see a cyclical pattern, a high plateau in the 1920s and early ‘30s; a rapid drop of more than half to a low point in the late 1950s; then, a sharp rise, more than doubling, by 1980 and 1990; and then what will probably be a drop of nearly half by 2009. These are huge swings. (Technical note: The early numbers are based on Eckberg’s corrections.)

We can put this story into yet greater perspective with the graph below. The line in that graph represents my rough estimate of fluctuations in the U.S. rate of homicide over many more generations, drawing on the historical literature (see some references at the end of this post). While the details are informed guesses, the general trend is well-established.

The overall story is that homicide rates declined substantially (as did rates of interpersonal violence of all sorts). The drop in violent crime in the U.S. after about 1850 was not as fast or as consistent as it was in western Europe and that is when the striking violence gap opened up. The graph also shows that progress was hardly uniform, as there were many upswings of violence. Spurts often coincide with wars and the aftermaths of war – notably having many demobilized soldiers, trained and armed fighters, roaming the land. (See this paper for one analysis of the war effect.) Another short-term influence is bloody competition among armed criminals – for example, over alcohol distribution during Prohibition and over crack cocaine during the 1980s.

Scholars have offered several explanations for the centuries’-long decline of violence in the West. Here are three common ones:

  • Government: Political authorities gained greater policing power and legitimacy. This allowed them to suppress criminal attacks, intergroup battles, and personal feuds. Also, court systems provided a peaceful way to resolve conflicts. And mandatory schooling swept dangerous boys off the streets.
  • Economics: Greater and more broadly-distributed wealth reduced people’s motivation for crime and raised the costs of getting into trouble. (Barroom brawling seems less attractive if it will cost you a steady and well-paying job.)
  • Culture: Over the centuries, westerners increasingly came to feel that violence was uncouth and distasteful. Historians refer to the “civilizing process,” a phrase German sociologist Norbert Elias used to describe how the royal courts of Europe suppressed bloody feuds among lords. The repression of violence spread to the bourgeois who, in turn, taught it to the working classes – or forced it on them through, for example, schooling. Over time, hitting, knifing, and shooting came to seem (to most people) as vulgar as smelling from body odor or defecating in the castle hallway.

Back to the Present

How might any of this explain the latest — the post-1990 — downswing in homicide and in criminal violence more generally? The rates are now approaching the level of the least violent era in American history, the late 1950s.

Researchers point to some similar factors, although they disagree about their relative importance. Some stress government authority, namely that longer criminal sentences and the prison-building boom kept many more “bad actors” off the streets longer. Others point to the economic boom of the 1990s, when unemployment, even in poor communities, sunk to low levels. And others argue — although it is difficult to confirm with “hard data” – that a cultural shift occurred, that increasing revulsion toward violence eventually spread into even the most violent communities and corners of the United States.

Recently, scholars have added yet another explanation: Immigration. Cities and neighborhoods that have received the largest influx of immigrants (including Mexican immigrants) have had — despite popular stereotypes to the contrary — the largest drops in criminal violence. (See, e.g., here and here.) Thus, increased immigration may explain part of the crime drop since 1990.

In a wider view, perhaps the more puzzling part of the story is the rapid upswing in violence from around 1960 to 1990 (see first graph above). Two generations of scholars have yet (it appears to me) to satisfactorily explain why that happened. Some of the upswing in crime can be attributed to the baby boom: Put a lot more 15-to-25-year-old males into a society and you will get an upsurge of violence. Some of it has to do with what happened in the black ghettos of the North: The population grew rapidly just when the well-paying blue-collar jobs for men were disappearing. Some of it involved the growing drug trade. And perhaps some of the upswing reflected a short-term cultural shift — maybe the baby boom generation’s rejection of authority — that encouraged violence.

Whatever the reason, the latest news — that violent crime in the U.S., although still high by first-world standards, is trending downward — seems consistent with our longer history. It is the upsurge of violent crime starting in the early 1960s and now ending that remains the larger puzzle.

Claude Fischer is the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. The article above was originally published in Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

* * *

Some Readings:

<> Adler, J. S. 2001. “`Halting the Slaughter of the Innocents’,” Social Science History.
<> Blumstein, A. and J. Wallman (eds.). 2000. The Crime Drop in America.
<> Eckberg, D. L.  1995. “Estimates of Early 20th-Century U.S. Homicide Rates,” Demography.
<> Fischer, C. S. 1980. “The Spread of Crime from City to Countryside,” Rural Sociology.
<> Gurr, T. R.  (ed.). 1989. Violence in America, Vol. 1: The History of Crime.
<> Johnson, E., and E. Monkkonen (eds.). 1996.  The Civilization of Crime.
<> Lane, R. 1997. Murder in America: A History.
<> Monkkonen, E. H. 2001. Murder in New York City.
<> Rosenfeld, R.. 2002. “The Crime Decline in Context.” Contexts.
<> Zimring, F. E. 2007. The Great American Crime Decline.

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Comments to "A crime puzzle: Violent crime declines in America":
    • Randy Anderson

      I believe the first graph is of too short a duration to draw meaningful conclusions. The second graph shows some crime spikes, about the time of significant social changes (Revolutionary War, Civil War, etc.).

      I just finished reading Thomas Sowell’s book on Racism and Intellectualism. Mr. Sowell makes an interesting point that the 1960′s rise in crime resulted from anger created by unrealized entitlement perceptions. He maintains that Black America was taught it was OK to blame White America and to act out. And, the 1960′s was also a period of significant social change.

      I really don’t know, I bring no credentials or insights to this discussion but find it interesting.

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    • Donald Hall

      Sorry to arrive so late to the party. Here’s my list of reasons why I believe that homicide rates have fallen.
      1) DNA testing – which efficiently identifies and deters many violent crimes.
      2) Cell Phones- quickly and efficiently reports violent crime.
      3) Computer Games- Those with violent propensities may be acting vicariously through these games, reducing real acts.
      4) Helicopter Parenting- One or two child households with access to technology means lots of supervision equating to fewer acts of violence.
      5) Access to information- Technology allows people to see and know where danger lurks.
      6) Advancement of Society- The acceleration from a society that accepts violence and warfare to an advanced society.
      7) Technology again- The police have more advanced technology (and attitudes) to identify crime and criminal

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    • David Platts

      I decided to conduct analysis comparing total reported crime per 100,000. I analyzed developed nations in Europe and the U.S. The representative year for each nation was for 2009. Information came from Eurostat in 2012 (release date). The report provided no data for Austria, Ireland and Spain. I used developed nations that were on both the IMF and CIA developed nation list for Europe. Only developed nations with 1 million or more were used. I used FBI data for the year 2009 for total reported crime. Firearm data was provided by http://www.gunpolicy.org from the University of Sydney who compiled data from a variety of sources. Here were the results for total crime followed by firearms per household in close correct approximation:

      1) Sweden – 15,026 1
      2) Belgium – 9,709 .8
      3) Denmark – 8,904 .5
      4) Switzerland – 8,686 1.7
      5) Finland – 8,065 1.7
      6) Netherlands – 7,456 .12
      7) Germany – 7,404 1.2
      8) United States – 7,213 4.0
      9) United Kingdom – 7,132 .25
      10) Norway – 5,139 1.0
      11) Italy – 4,380 .5
      12) Portugal – 4,009 .3 to 1.0
      13) France – 3,717 1.1
      14) Greece – 3,493 .9

      Sweden has problems with domestic partner abuse and I think these numbers could reflect that issue. However, I did not research this problem in regard to this outlier for Sweden. I am only making an educated guess.
      Portugal had huge variance on firearm ownership. I did not uncover the reason for this discrepancy as the data was alone in this discrepancy and had no impact on the data presented.

      No correlation exists in number of firearms owned and total reported crime. Many firearm advocates requesting no new regulation have a firm belief firearms reduce crime. By the data shown above, I can see nothing that would support that claim. Many firearm advocates claim that violence is higher in Europe. Since developed European nations include many more crimes as violent than the U.S. no accurate depiction can be found for that comparison. I found the above crime comparison more appropriate. So, no correlation exists for firearms decreasing or increasing crime.

      Firearm death and murder is another matter. Here is the key data where correlation does exist. The European nations each have very similar firearm regulations. The U.S., by far, is less regulated except for a patchwork of legislation varying from state to state. Within the states with greater regulation, lower firearm death rates exist according to a recent study by Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard. More regulation correlates with less firearm death. Less regulation appears to provide higher firearm death and murder in a developed society. Of course, the U.S. is the only outlier developed nation.

      By the way, only developed nations are comparative. Less developed nations are subject to a variety of issues that do not exist as readily in the developed world. Cross referencing IMF and CIA data for developed nations, 25 nations with population of 1 million or more are in this category. Including the U.S., 14 of these nations are compared here.

      The U.S. firearm death rate is 10.2 per 100,000. The second worst nation on this list is Switzerland at 3.5 per 100,000. The U.S. murder rate is 4.7 per 100,000. The second worst is Finland at 2.2. The worst firearm murder rate is the U.S. (again) at 2.75. Greece is the 2nd worst at .59.

      All of the European nations on this list require a license for all firearm owners (the Swiss exempts some manual repetition rifles), background checks for each firearm purchase(criminal and mental-in the least), many nations require denial or revocation of a license for domestic abuse and locks/safes for firearms are necessary. The U.S. has a lot of holes in comparison to these laws and our firearm death and murder numbers reflect these problems.

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    • Lou

      There are some really … not very well thought out ideas posted here. I would never have found this post were it not for doing research for a paper I am writing about a different but related topic.

      In search of something concrete as to why crime violent crime was in sharp decline since 1994, specifically, I was stunned to discover there is a cyclical pattern to crime rates. Generally not a fan of anything Berkeley related, facts are facts. The fact is that crime rates are cyclical and have been going down for a long time.

      I think arguing that development, a.k.a civilization, is not a substantial factor is wholly unrealistic. Certainly when humanity becomes more civilized, which is a cultural shift, we are going to see a drop in crime in general. Arguing to the contrary is ad absurdum.

      Still, that does not explain the cyclical nature of crime as presented by the evidence. I do believe that video games may, indeed, have an impact. Or, that is to say, games in general. During the Great Depression is when we see the rise of board games which are popular to this day. A cursory look at the early history of baseball in America shows a possible peak in interest between the mid-1840s to the late 1850s. While these may be periods of increasing poverty, greater social interaction may also be reducing social competition.

      The lead level theory falls on its face: it fails to address the period prior to the 1960s when lead levels were 100% unregulated. The affects on overall crime rates being influenced by race falls on its face, as well, since the evidence clearly indicates violent crime rates among ALL demographics. Because the statistics are aggregated, manipulation is not going to be a significant factor in the overall numbers. Due to a lack of well-lit streets and a lack of electricity prior to the 1940s, whether or not people walked the streets at night is irrelevant.

      Violent crime statistics include injury and are not limited to mortal wounds so survivability is also not relevant (for that discussion, look at mortality rates from war to war starting with the Civil War. There, you have an argument. Here, you don’t).

      The argument that periods of high crime begin with periods of rise within the Republican party, frankly, is idiotic. From a political science perspective, those periods are more likely to be considered periods of Republican party falls, not rises. Changes in demographics, increased wealth, and increased firearm ownership are interesting. The problem here is that household wealth, adjusted for inflation has decreased since the 1970s.

      When we look at firearm ownership in other countries, we see stricter gun laws yet we see similar patterns of violent crime. I am a HUGE advocate of gun rights … but this alone cannot be seen as a causative factor. The drop in fertility rates, though, actually does have merit. Especially when considering European countries, they are seeing the same cyclical pattern of violent crime and they are also seeing notable drops in fertility/birth rates.

      On the economic aspect, one thing I have argued for a while now is that, in fact, the numbers regarding wealth do not tell the whole story. While dollar for dollar, yes, wealth seems to be decreasing, what is not factored into the numbers is what you get for your dollar. To make this simple, a $6000 car in 1977 would cost over $30,000 today. The problem is that today’s car would get at least twice as much fuel economy, has all sorts of safety features, includes air condition, etc, etc, etc. This is true of almost every major product people purchase today. So, in fact, wealth actually is increasing, just not in dollar terms.

      Like I said, the availability of firearms probably can be seen as correlating, but definitely can not be seen as causative. The numbers show exactly the opposite of common myth: violent crime increases as we approach war and during war then declines once the war is over. Regardless, the Iraq/Afghanistan wars throw even that theory out of the window so far that obviously war has no correlation with violent crime.

      I do like the point that incarceration rates and violent crime rates are have a negative correlation. That actually makes 100% sense. As for the ability to look at your neighbor’s criminal record having an effect on crime rates … lots of studies have shown that is 100% myth. The CIA did not exist prior to World War II (in fact, it did not come into being until AFTER WWII) so, no, black ops hit squads affecting crime rates does not fly.

      The information about Hispanic migration provides an interesting idea. When mass migrations start, they usually start with the two ends of the spectrum: the worst and best of societies emigrate to the new country. Once settlement occurs, crime in those communities declines. I think the history of migration to the United States would support that hypothesis. But what throws a kink in the theory are African Americans. What is missed in that discussion, though, is the forced nature of their migration along with many generations of enslavement. A lack of education, more generations of repressive laws perpetuate the impoverished nature of their existence. In fact, the length of time for the repressive state of their existence would likely lead to a broken spirit where a lack of interest in social activities – like inventing new games – perpetuates the problem. That situation may finally be dissipating and would be a contributing factor to the overall drop in crime rates in African American communities, as well.

      Out of all this, I would say these are factors:
      – Culture shifts due to economic cycles
      – Demographic shifts via generations
      – Demographic shifts via prolonged immigration
      – Increased prosperity, not necessarily wealth
      – Accessibility to self defense
      – Overall development of civilization

      I don’t think the Luminati has any control over world dynamics whatsoever. I think they love for people to think they do, but in reality? No. Probably not.

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    • Laurence

      Lou, Very interesting points you write. It appears that high concentrations of population, meaning ghettos, have a correlation to crime. My imprecise memory is that populations of over 250,000 have some five times the violent crime rates as do lower population bases.

      The author’s claim that the US is more violent seems at odds with what I’ve been reading about England now being the most violent country in the UK. I seem to remember that Australia has a rape stat that is about five times that of the US.

      The long held mantra that “Poverty causes crime” appears to me to be 180 degrees off. I maintain that poverty is not the causative factor in crime but that a criminal lifestyle results in poverty. Certainly drugs and alcohol play a factor here but every criminal I’ve ever come in contact with had a lifestyle that made any chance of economic improvement impossible.

      Looking forward to seeing more of your thoughts on this and other matters.
      Cheers
      Laurence

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    • deveros

      it is at least partially do to video games becoming a house held item, meaning that impressible young people spending less time on the street with people who are bad influences or committing crimes and more time at home playing the hero. Do not get me wrong — some games are a bad influence but there better than some guy in a gang who is showing you how to hot-wire a car.

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    • Geoff

      A very interesting theory presented in “Mother Jones” is the rise and fall of lead levels due to leaded gasoline in the 1950′s through the 1970′s. Certainly it’s not the only factor, but exposure to lead in young children has been shown to cause neurological damage leading to increased aggression, lowered impulse control and reduced ability to be deterred by punishment.

      The authors showed that there were two general spikes in lead levels in the 20th century (the first due to leaded paint, the second due to leaded gasoline) and both of these corresponded amazingly closely with spikes in crime rates 15-20 years later. Similar matches were found in other countries where lead levels increased and then fell.

      As I said, it’s clearly not the only factor influencing crime, but we have to consider the possibility that changes in national pollution patterns have a bigger effect on behavior than we might think.

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    • David

      In the mid 1950′s juvenile delinquency began to rise, and has kept rising ever since. Smaller cities in the US often never even had juvenile courts until after 1960….some of these communities later had to add a second court to handle juvenile crimes, and these areas have never been able to scale back since .

      Crime within the black community began to soar, starting about when the civil rights movement accelerated in the late 1950′s, and these rises in crimes among blacks , usually young males, persists.

      Some crimes peaked around 1994 and began to fall, but this is due mainly to manipulation of the data- cops often arrest for one crime yet later the charge becomes something less, etc. Manipulation of statistics occurs in the cities that have large illegal immigrant populations also.

      The idea that medium sized US cities were dangerous to walk the streets at night in the 1940′s or the 1840′s ,or in 1780, in general, is preposterous.

      A main cause to explain the possible decline in homicides in the last 15 years- people are surviving bullet and knife wounds that they could never have survived in times past using less advanced medical technology. The attempts to kill remain as high, or higher, than ever, but these attempts are sometimes failing due to prompt emergency medical intervention

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    • Slime Shady

      One association that has not been noticed: the really bad periods in crime are the same as periods of Republican Party ascendance. Of course, isn’t immediately obvious if this is correlation or causality, and if it is causality, it is not clear which causes which.

      To think of this as long-term preditor and prey cycles does make one wonder about what the underlying dynamic really is. These periods of Republican ascendance are characterized by the large cash flows in the economy being redirected to insiders close to the political order. The Civil War period was as much as anything the start of major redistribution: bankrupting slave holders (good), some land reform to free blacks (very minor in the big picture), the enriching of many private cos. that supplied the war (e.g. DuPont, and questionable way to get rich), and dirty insider land deals (what the general public calls “building the railroads).

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    • mike

      I think it’s reasonable to conclude that we’re seeing the interaction of several different factors. The fact that there are a number of casues also helps explain why we see not a continuing downward trend, but an oscillating one.

      The most salient factors would be, in no particular order:

      1. Demographic. The population of the US is aging as the fertility rate declines and people have children later or not at all.

      2. Economic. The overall increase in wealth averaged over time means that there’s less of a market for stolen goods.

      3. Increases in firearms ownership

      I have a suspicion, based on my knowledge of what’s going on in the police department in one major city, that the crime rate in the inner cities has not decreased, but has gone under-reported. This may be a factor in the statistics as well.

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    • Jim

      Not everyone has ignored one vital factor in studying this issue. For example, Professor John R. Lott, Jr. has documented the correlation between less restrictive state laws pertaining to carrying of concealed weapons and the astounding statistic in his landmark study “More Guns, Less Crime.” A complete study with charts and extensive footnotes. Nothing deters crime like a educated, prepared and licensed person with a concealed weapon…. obeying the law.

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    • Robert

      Great blog except it once again repeats the greatest blindspot in most people’s conception of crime. The author suggests that as more become poor that crime should go up. This despite the fact that the article’s most prominent chart shows that what happened during the single greatest increase in modern American poverty (known as the Great Depression)..crime went DOWN. What happened in the second greatest moder American increase in unemployment (known as the Great Recession of 2009), crime when DOWN. I am amazed that people cannot accept that crime (either homicide or theft) does not rise when more our impovershed. Yes, those without the self-sacrifice or will to work are more often likely to commit crime, but those people are constants, not changed by the fact that a hard working person lost their job. Those people remain ready to sacrifice for a better future while those likely to commit crime continue to do so. The professor chooses not to place incarceration rates up there with the homicide chart but they track each other very closely in opposite directions. Personally I think as crime rises people are more willing to put repeat (violent crime) offenders in jail for longer periods of time which means those who account for most crime are incapacitated. Anyway, I realize that most of you reading a sociology blog do not want to hear about the evidence. You are free to return to your ideological knee-jerk reactions instead.

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    • Greg Bacon

      Since the rate of violent crimes in the USA has been dropping in the USA since 2003, when we invaded Iraq, maybe we’re satisfying our blood lust by murdering Iraqi, Afghanistan and Pakistan civilians?

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    • Lesha Holland

      “A puzzle?” Really? The answer (or AN answer, anyway) is right there in front of your face, Pal! You almost touched it for a moment, when referring to the “rapid upswing in violence from 1960 – 1990″ and the so-called “Baby Boom.” It has little-to-nothing to do with any percieved moral ambiguities inherent in this generation, just in that there WAS a ‘Baby Boom’ at all! I believe statistics (if not simple common sense) will bear out the idea that violent crime is a young man’s (or woman’s) game, for the most part. People do tend to “age out” of criminality. This is ‘Sociology 101′ stuff here, fellas!

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    • Tom Edwards

      One possible reason is that currently there are many online criminal records databases available due to the computer technology. People can easily search the criminal history of someone.

      Recent criminal investigation shows that criminals tend to repeat their crimes. So these crimes will leave a trail on them. Further more, the research also reveals that those criminals will show up before their attacks. For example, they will contact the victims through a certain channel, such as shopping, work, business deals, hiring request, or even online connection. So if you can find out someone’s criminal history and keep cautious, you may prevent the crimes from happening again.

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    • Duncan

      You may also want to read up on Generational Dynamics and generational theory. Your example of gang crime, driven in two examples by Prohibition in the 20′s and crack cocaine in the 80′s tie in with the Young adulthood of a Nomad generation (the Lost generation and Gen X specifically in these examples) during a third (Unraveling) turning. Read up on Strauss and Howe’s work, specifically The Fourth Turning, and these patterns fit into place…

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    • KEN

      The reason is simple–more people own guns every year! In places where you cannot own or carry a firearm the crime rate is high, in places where you can, the rate is lower! Crazy as this may sound it is borne out by facts.

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    • James

      That’s exactly right, Ken. Why did crime spike suddenly in the 60′s and start falling in recent years. Simple. The ’60s progressive movement brought on the ideological attitudes toward the world in general and gun controls as well as other societal restrictions were placed with good, but misguided intentions. Unfortunately, pragmatism wins out in the real world. And in the progressives’ oblivious push to make victims out of criminals and criminals out of their victims as well as remove any deterrence in the name of human rights, the result was a very criminal-friendly society. With many states now returning to following the constitution in respect to the 2nd amendment, violent crimes diminished. Criminals don’t like an armed victim, you know. Not that it surprises me that someone from Berkeley wouldn’t make that connection. It goes against the counter-culture, appropriately named.

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  • Peter Martin

    It has just been revealed that the murder rate in Britain is now annualy as low as it was back in 1983. The fall happened about a decade ago. Information commissioner, Flatley says this trend has been mirrored in all the western world at the same time so it has nothing to do with good British policing. This is the CIA secret assasination black ops department that Leon Panetta discovered; the one Obama refuses to investigate; the one that Dick Cheney runs and has kept secret from Congress. Cheney said it was set up after 9/11 but never implemented. To understand how this has happened you need to be aware that the CIA has control over approx 170 nations globaly. Go to my blog.

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