Disclosure of 'Targeted Killing' Program Comes at Bad Time for CIA
Friday, August 21, 2009
The disclosure Wednesday of the CIA's decision five years ago to let a private security contractor help manage its sensitive effort to kill senior al-Qaeda members drew congressional criticism Thursday on the eve of key decisions by the Obama administration that current and former intelligence officials fear could compound the spy agency's political troubles.
Those decisions include the expected release Monday of newly declassified portions of a 2004 CIA report that questions the legality and effectiveness of the agency's harsh interrogations at secret prisons. Additionally, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. may order a probe of possible criminal actions by CIA officers and contractors during those interrogations.
"In September, you are going to have a hurricane coming through Washington that is aimed right at the intelligence community," warned Porter J. Goss, the CIA's director from September 2004 to May 2006. He noted that a Justice Department inquiry is also pending into whether laws were broken when CIA officers destroyed videotapes of the harsh interrogations.
Democratic House and Senate lawmakers and staff members have already described as inappropriate the Bush administration's decision to hand management and training responsibility for the CIA's "targeted killing" efforts to Blackwater USA, and they have reiterated their intent to press for speedier and more complete disclosure by the agency of such activities in the future. CIA Director Leon E. Panetta terminated the program in June, shortly before telling Congress about its existence.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the intelligence committee, sharpened her previous criticism of the program. "It is clear to me that the failure to notify before now constituted a violation of law," she said in a statement Thursday.
She said she could not address the program's parameters but emphasized that it "had, in fact, gone beyond the simple planning stage."
"I have believed for a long time that the Intelligence Community is over-reliant on contractors to carry out its work," she said. "This is especially a problem when contractors are used to carry out activities that are inherently governmental."
Democrats have previously pushed to ban the use of contractors to conduct interrogations, and some suggested Thursday that the restriction should extend to hit squads. "There is still too much being done by contractors that ought to be done by government employees," said a congressional staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the CIA program remains classified.
Goss said he had not been fully briefed on the details of the CIA activities in question, many of which are classified, so he could not confirm the reported involvement of Blackwater, now known as Xe Services LLC. A spokeswoman for the firm did not return a phone call Thursday, but two former intelligence officers familiar with the effort said the company had received millions of dollars for helping train and equip teams to undertake the killings.
Goss alluded to that effort, stating that "my standing orders were 'field-forward' mission."
"We wanted to catch the people who brought down the trade centers and killed innocent people and wanted to kill more," he said. "And we wanted to have every possible legal means at our disposal that we could to deal with them. That was certainly in my vision statement, and that is the briefing that was given to members of Congress" during his tenure.
"In my view, we should constantly be looking at all our options in terms of national security," Goss said. "Suppose you got a high-value guy, a terrorist, part of al-Qaeda, a radical fundamentalist trained to kill innocent people, who you cannot talk down from the tree. What happens when you actually find that guy? Do you send the FBI? That's probably not the best option for the tribal areas" in Afghanistan and Pakistan.