Back in March, stories started to emerge to the effect that the CIA ran a super-secret assassinations program. It was apparently former Vice President Cheney’s pet project, and he seems to have had some role directing it. Details about the program were scarce, but the pushback that came from Cheney’s corner was a vintage nondenial denial. Rather than directly deny that the program existed, a senior Cheney advisor, John Hannah, quibbled with some elements of the description that the New Yorker’s Sy Hersh put forward. I summarized the claims and counterclaims here.
Last week, we learned that CIA Director Leon Panetta had briefed the Congressional intelligence committees that his predecessors had failed to notify Congress about a super-secret program, and that he himself wasn’t told about it for months. Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that the program had been kept secret by direct order of Dick Cheney. In a classic ploy, Cheney also appears to have directed that the program be described as something under consideration rather than final, so it would not have to be briefed. Whatever the label affixed to it, it is increasingly likely that this really was a program, it was implemented in some measure, and it has Dick Cheney’s fingerprints all over it.
This morning the Wall Street Journal links these two matters. The super-sensitive CIA program that Cheney ordered not be disclosed was in fact Dick Cheney’s targeted killings program. Siobhan Gorman:
A secret Central Intelligence Agency initiative terminated by Director Leon Panetta was an attempt to carry out a 2001 presidential authorization to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives, according to former intelligence officials familiar with the matter. The precise nature of the highly classified effort isn’t clear, and the CIA won’t comment on its substance. According to current and former government officials, the agency spent money on planning and possibly some training. It was acting on a 2001 presidential legal pronouncement, known as a finding, which authorized the CIA to pursue such efforts. The initiative hadn’t become fully operational at the time Mr. Panetta ended it.
In 2001, the CIA also examined the subject of targeted assassinations of al Qaeda leaders, according to three former intelligence officials. It appears that those discussions tapered off within six months. It isn’t clear whether they were an early part of the CIA initiative that Mr. Panetta stopped.
The detail here is critical. In wartime, a nation is certainly free to target and remove the command and control mechanisms of an enemy force, including individual commanders, and a program designed to identify and take out Al Qaeda kingpins in a war setting therefore raises more policy than legal concerns. Removed from the war setting, however, the issue becomes one of summary execution and raises serious legal issues. And were the targets entirely Al Qaeda leaders? The Bush Administration had a disturbing habit of labeling anyone it disliked a “terrorist” and then immediately reaching to the strongest weapons in its arsenal against them. The kill list would therefore be worth careful study, though that’s something that will assuredly occur behind closed doors.
The more immediate question here is the failure to brief Congress. Once more we see Dick Cheney engaged in the management of a secret government at the highest levels. Was Dick Cheney running a private snuff squad? Did he order the CIA to violate the clear requirement of the National Security Act of 1947 that Congress be apprised of the program? Those are serious questions that the intelligence oversight bodies need to pursue.
One more thing: those following this question should pick up retired senior CIA operative Barry Eisler’s book Fault Line. As this thing unravels, Eisler’s novel, which turns entirely on a super-secret assassinations program, is looking less like fiction and more like the work of someone who had a firm grip on what Cheney was doing.