Peeling back the curtain (a little)

PEELING BACK THE CURTAIN (A LITTLE)…. Over the weekend, we learned that the CIA, following direct orders from Dick Cheney, “withheld information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress for eight years.” CIA Director Leon Panetta has scrapped the program, but the decision to hide it from Congress has raised a lot of questions among lawmakers.

It’s raised some questions for the rest of us, too. Most notably, what was this program all about? The initial reports indicated that the “unidentified program did not involve the C.I.A. interrogation program and did not involve domestic intelligence activities.” That removes two of the more significant areas of interest, but it doesn’t answer the question.

The Wall Street Journal moves the ball forward today, at least a little, with an interesting front-page piece.

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.

There obviously has to be more to the operational details — we’ve been trying to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives for quite a while now, outside of this specific program — but at least the general nature of the matter at hand had to do with targeted assassinations.

Amid the high alert following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a small CIA unit examined the potential for targeted assassinations of al Qaeda operatives, according to the three former officials. The Ford administration had banned assassinations in the response to investigations into intelligence abuses in the 1970s. Some officials who advocated the approach were seeking to build teams of CIA and military Special Forces commandos to emulate what the Israelis did after the Munich Olympics terrorist attacks, said another former intelligence official.

“It was straight out of the movies,” one of the former intelligence officials said. “It was like: Let’s kill them all.”

This story also helps shed some light on why Bush administration allies spent much of yesterday arguing that the counterterrorism program was “off and on,” and didn’t really go anywhere.

Why Cheney would direct the CIA not to brief Congress on the efforts is still unclear.