The Kerfluffle Over The CIA's Assassination Program

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on July 17, 2009

If ever there were a tempest in a teacup . . .

CIA officials were proposing to activate a plan to train anti-terrorist assassination teams overseas when agency managers brought the secret program to the attention of CIA Director Leon Panetta last month, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The plan to kill top al-Qaeda leaders, which had been on the agency’s back burner for much of the past eight years, was suddenly thrust into the spotlight because of proposals to initiate what one intelligence official called a “somewhat more operational phase.” Shortly after learning of the plan, Panetta terminated the program and then went to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers, who had been kept in the dark since 2001.

The Obama administration’s top intelligence official, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, yesterday defended Panetta’s decision to cancel the program, which he said had raised serious questions among intelligence officials about its “effectiveness, maturity and the level of control.”

But Blair broke with some Democrats in Congress by asserting that the CIA did not violate the law when it failed to inform lawmakers about the secret program until last month. Blair said agency officials may not have been required to notify Congress about the program, though he believes they should have done so.

“It was a judgment call,” Blair said in an interview. “We believe in erring on the side of working with the Hill as a partner.”

Of course, it is one thing to say–as Admiral Blair appears to have said–that it might have been better to err on the side of caution, and brief Congress. But Blair’s point that there was no violation of law in not briefing Congress is correct as well.

Regarding the calls to investigate Dick Cheney over this issue, asDavid Ignatius writes, the only way to understand the current calls for an investigation is in terms of political revenge. The CIA program at issue was never implemented, and the United States is already using drones to kill al Qaeda operatives. The CIA is being attacked because House Democrats would rather see it hang, than see Nancy Pelosi suffer for her ridiculous comment that the CIA misled her concerning Bush Administration interrogation policies–when in fact, Pelosi failed to come clean about the amount of information she had concerning those policies. The degree to which this entire exercise can be understood as an effort to engender political revenge can be gleaned, of course, by considering that the name “Cheney” is involved in this story. It seems that every time the former Vice President rears his head, someone in Washington calls for investigations and even prosecutions without checking the facts first.

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