Behind the CIA's Assassination Program

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, July 22, 2009; 8:50 PM

When news about the CIA's assassination program surfaced this month, the first reports focused on what hadn't been done: Congress hadn't been briefed, supposedly on orders from Vice President Dick Cheney, and the program hadn't resulted in any "hit team" attacks on al-Qaeda operatives.

The first failing upset House Democrats, and they demanded an investigation. But the second issue is in some ways more interesting for what it reveals about the bureaucratic and legal culture in which the CIA operates.

The program began soon after Sept. 11, 2001, as part of a broader anti-terrorism effort that had the vivid code name "Cannonball." The initial idea at the agency's Counter-Terrorism Center, according to one former top-level official, was to go after al-Qaeda operatives around the world and "compromise them, disrupt them, snatch them" and, if necessary, kill them.

The goal was that "every al-Qaeda man on the planet should worry that someone is screwing with them full time," recalls a second former agency official. The CIA wanted to send the message: "If you work for Osama bin Laden, we will find you and come after you."

That's the way spies talk in the movies, but real life is harder. Some al-Qaeda targets were working in friendly countries far from the battleground of Afghanistan, where killing was permitted under the rules of war. In such friendly countries, the CIA normally prefers to partner with the local intelligence and security services, because operations can cause a big stink if they go wrong. But CIA officials believed they needed a "unilateral" capability against al-Qaeda, which made it very risky.

Then there was the problem of surveillance. "Pulling the trigger is the easy part," says a current official. "First you have to find them."

To gather that intelligence, the CIA needed teams of agents, drawn from foreign countries. A generation ago, former officials say, the CIA had recruited and trained a team of Lebanese agents to assassinate people involved in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut. There was discussion within the CIA of reviving that capability, or using surrogates from other countries.

These issues were complicated, legally and ethically. A Sept. 17, 2001, covert-action finding had granted broad authority for lethal activity against al-Qaeda. But CIA Director George Tenet and his aides, after exploring the options, decided the unilateral assassination program wouldn't work. Recalls one former agency official: "We didn't think it was practical. We looked at it and said, 'We're not doing this.' "

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was exploring what Special Forces troops could do in friendly countries. The Pentagon developed a plan whose public name was "Military Liaison Elements," which would station abroad operatives drawn from Special Operations Command. The State Department, fearing a flap, protested loudly, and the program was scaled back. Operatives were sent to embassies, but they worked, in effect, as "SOCOM attaches," performing nonlethal missions and not as hit teams, according to a knowledgeable official.

The CIA program had been shelved by Tenet, but it was revived under his successor, Porter Goss. And it was renewed, once more, under the next CIA director, Gen. Michael V. Hayden. The aim during Hayden's watch was to focus on the surveillance capability, with the understanding that it "could develop into something else" if targets were identified, according to one former official. This official says Hayden had only two or three meetings about the program, the last in spring 2008.

Enter Leon Panetta, the new CIA director. After settling in, he was briefed by the Counter-Terrorism Center on the assassination idea and was concerned. In the years since 2001, explains a government official, "money was spent, agents were recruited, teams were trained, people were deployed." Panetta sensed that the program had a "troubled history," and that although nobody had been killed, there had been "one pretty red-faced flap" when an operation went wrong, this official says.

Panetta is said to have asked two questions: Had Congress been briefed, and had the program been valuable? The answer to both questions from CIA counter-terrorism officials was "no." So Panetta decided in late June to stop the program, pending a further review, and to brief Congress about it.

The House intelligence committee is preparing its investigation. I hope it will focus on both sides of Panetta's question: Why wasn't Congress briefed on this idea for a global squeeze on al-Qaeda, and why didn't it work?

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