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WaPo: Snuff Program Was Close to Activation

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This morning the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick offers an account of the Cheney-linked covert CIA program drawing on “two U.S. officials familiar with the matter.”

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.

Agency leaders are at this point obviously focused on damage control and desperate to ward off still more demands for a criminal inquiry. That helps explain the defensive line in this report: namely, this was all talk about a potential program, nothing that had actually been put in place. This could be true, but it’s a pretty simplistic dodge, and the evidence that a targeted killing program was operational is mounting. It is noteworthy, however, that most of the evidence for that program puts it squarely under the aegis of JSOC, the military’s special forces command, and not the CIA. Documents that have emerged in the course of the torture investigation point repeatedly to high-level coordination of JSOC and CIA operations, however, and they point to friction as CIA seniors sensed their prime role in intelligence black operations was being usurped by Stephen Cambone and his pet project at the Pentagon.

Still, the internal merits of the targeted killings program are far less interesting in my mind than the oversight issue. This points to a systematic circumvention of Congressional oversight of the intelligence community. And contemporary statements by Dick Cheney in which he intimated his distrust of Congressional oversight (reflected in Karl Rove’s revealing statement on Fox News that “it’s so dangerous to give Congress information”—this from a man who’s been dodging a congressional subpoena for two years) make plain that the failure was calculated. Dennis C. Blair discusses the matter in jarring terms: “We believe in erring on the side of working with the Hill as a partner,” he says, implying like Rove and Cheney that sharing information with Congress could be a “mistake.”

What lies under the surface here is an ancient squabble between Congress and the Executive over access to classified information that is particularly acute in the field of covert operations. The Cheney-Addington view is that Congress has no right to such information; that the Executive shares the information to assist lawmakers in performing their proper constitutional function, but also has the right to withhold information as it sees fit in the interests of national security. The provision of the National Security Act of 1947 that mandates the sharing of such information is, in their view, an unconstitutional intrusion upon presidential authority. (That view runs, for instance, through the November 1987 Iran-Contra House minority report in which both were involved.) Admiral Blair’s comments may echo this view, which was also advanced by President Nixon. The real question is whether Congress is prepared to stand up and assert its right of oversight. If it retreats in the face of these claims, Congress will effectively be acknowledging the president’s claims and undercutting its own oversight authority.

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