By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009
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."
Democratic lawmakers have accused the CIA of deliberately misleading Congress by failing to disclose the program's existence until the briefing by Panetta on June 24. House Democrats, citing an account given by Panetta, say then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney personally ordered the CIA not to tell Congress about the initiative, which involved a series of intermittent plans to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders using small teams of assassins.
Congressional Democrats this week formally requested documents about the program, and some have called for an investigation into whether the CIA improperly withheld information from oversight committees. Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.), a member of the Senate intelligence committee, was among several prominent Democrats who have accused the CIA of violating the law.
He said he had "deep concerns about the program" and had conveyed them to President Obama in a classified letter.
Republicans say the allegations of CIA wrongdoing are false and harmful, and some accused Democrats of raising the issue to deflect attention from recent controversies surrounding House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who was heavily criticized after accusing the agency of lying to Congress about its use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques.
"We have lost valuable opportunities to improve oversight of the intelligence community because they got caught playing silly games," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).
The plan to deploy small teams of assassins grew out of the CIA's early efforts to battle al-Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A secret document known as a "presidential finding" was signed by President George W. Bush that same month, granting the agency broad authority to use deadly force against bin Laden as well as other senior members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
The finding imposed no geographical limitations on the agency's actions, and intelligence officials have said that they were not obliged to notify Congress of each operation envisaged under the directive.
The CIA declined to reveal specifics of the terminated program. But agency spokesman George Little said it was "never fully operational and never took a single terrorist off the battlefield." Since his appointment, Panetta has been "aggressively using the vast tools and tactics at our disposal -- those that actually work -- to take terrorists off the streets," Little said.
Some U.S. officials familiar with the program say it never progressed beyond concepts and feasibility studies, but others described more advanced preparations, including selection of teams and limited training. All of the attempts ultimately had to be scrapped, often because of logistical difficulties or because the risks were deemed too great, said several officials who served in counterterrorism units or had access to top-secret files.
The program was active in fits and starts, and it was essentially killed in 2004 because it was deemed ineffective, former and current intelligence officials said. It reemerged briefly in 2005 but remained largely dormant until this year. Two U.S. officials with detailed knowledge of current CIA operations said the agency presented Panetta last month with new plans for moving forward with training for potential members of the assassination teams -- activities that would have involved "crossing international boundaries," in the words of a former counterterrorism official briefed on the matter.
"When a CIA unit brought the program to Panetta's attention, it came with a recommendation to brief Congress since there was some thought being given to moving toward a somewhat more operational phase -- that is, a little training," said an intelligence official with direct knowledge of the events.
Despite the new activity surrounding the program, there were "concerns about its feasibility," the official said. "If the country ever needs a capability like this going forward, smart minds will figure out a better way to do it."
Blair said that Panetta told him in advance of the decision to terminate the program and that he supported the action as well as the decision to inform Congress.
Panetta "felt it was urgent and appropriate to brief the Hill," Blair said. "You can make a judgment call on whether a briefing was necessary. We were on the side of 'Let's do it.' We're trying to reset our relations with Congress."
Blair also asserted that killing the program did not diminish U.S. options for battling al-Qaeda, including the possible use of insertion teams that could kill or capture terrorist leaders.
"This particular program didn't make the cut," he said. "But it is absolutely not true that we are doing less against al-Qaeda. Our primary criterion is effectiveness, and we will continue to do things that we think are effective to make terrorist lives miserable, and hopefully, short."
Staff writers R. Jeffrey Smith, Karen DeYoung and Ben Pershing and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.