Details come together on targeted assassinations program

DETAILS COME TOGETHER ON TARGETED ASSASSINATIONS PROGRAM…. Slowly but surely, we’re starting to get a better sense of the secret counterterrorism program that Dick Cheney ordered the CIA not to divulge to Congress.

The WSJ reported yesterday that the program had to do with authorization for targeted assassinations of al Qaeda leaders. But the report was incomplete — U.S. officials were already going after al Qaeda leaders, and didn’t need a secret program or new presidential authorization to do so. For that matter, there’d be no reason to keep that secret, and CIA Director Leon Panetta wouldn’t have had to cancel the program last month.

This started to make more sense this morning, with this NYT piece.

Since 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency has developed plans to dispatch small teams overseas to kill senior Qaeda terrorists, according to current and former government officials. […]

Officials at the spy agency over the years ran into myriad logistical, legal and diplomatic obstacles. How could the role of the United States be masked? Should allies be informed and might they block the access of the C.I.A. teams to their targets? What if American officers or their foreign surrogates were caught in the midst of an operation? Would such activities violate international law or American restrictions on assassinations overseas?

Yet year after year, according to officials briefed on the program, the plans were never completely shelved because the Bush administration sought an alternative to killing terror suspects with missiles fired from drone aircraft or seizing them overseas and imprisoning them in secret C.I.A. jails.

In context, this isn’t about operations in a combat zone. If the CIA had intelligence on an al Qaeda leader in, say, Kandahar, U.S. officials would act on that intelligence without concern for “logistical, legal and diplomatic obstacles.” Indeed, predator drones make it possible to strike without sending teams of Americans at all.

This secret program, however, was apparently designed to consider what to do in response to intelligence about an al Qaeda leader believed to be in, say, Hamburg, where sending a predator drone isn’t an option.

For the same reason the U.S. government would be displeased with foreign paramilitary teams carrying out assassinations on American soil, the prospects of sending small, surgical U.S. assassination squads around the world, including into allied countries, proved problematic.

“It sounds great in the movies, but when you try to do it, it’s not that easy,” a former intelligence official said, noting the logistical challenges. “Where do you base them? What do they look like? Are they going to be sitting around at headquarters on 24-hour alert waiting to be called?” And this doesn’t even touch on the legal and political difficulties.

As for secrecy from Congress, the NYT reported, “Congressional Democrats were furious that the program had not been shared with the committees. The Senate and House oversight committees were created by law in the 1970s as a direct response to disclosures of C.I.A. abuses, notably including assassination plots against Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Fidel Castro in Cuba and other foreign politicians.”

The WaPo report added that some intelligence officials familiar with the program said certain elements of it were operational and should have been disclosed because they involved “significant resources and high risk.”