A ferocious dispute between the CIA and congressional Democrats centers on an ultrasecret effort launched by agency officials after 9/11 to draw up plans to hunt down and kill terrorists using commando teams similar to those deployed by Israel after the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, according to a former senior U.S. official.
Officials of the CIA's undercover spying branch, then known as the Directorate of Operations, on and off over the last several years repeatedly floated and revised plans for such operations, which would involve sending squads of operatives overseas, sometimes into friendly countries, to track and assassinate Al Qaeda leaders, much the same way Israeli Mossad agents sent assassins to Europe to kill men they believed responsible for murdering Israeli Olympic athletes, the former official said. But several former and current officials said the highly classified plans, which last week provoked bitter argument between Congress and the CIA, never became "fully operational," and CIA Director Leon Panetta put an end to the program in June.
According to two former officials—who, like others quoted in this story, asked for anonymity to speak about sensitive matters—shortly after 9/11, the Bush White House consulted with the Directorate of Operations about expanding the agency's powers to track or lure terrorists. Top CIA officials ultimately concluded the program posed an unacceptable risk of failure or exposure, according to another former official. As a result, the initial plans proposed by officers of the Directorate of Operations—now known as the National Clandestine Service—were put on hold by CIA Director George Tenet before he left office in 2004, former officials said. Tenet's two successors, Porter Goss and Gen. Michael Hayden, kept the plans in the deep freeze. But a former official said that until Panetta killed the program outright last month, the CIA never totally abandoned the plans for kill teams; agency personnel believed it was important to have them ready as an option for the president to use, and they continued to try to refine the idea.
Over the last two years, agency officials held at least three high-level meetings about the program. But they did not make much progress, an official said. The most recent discussions were so tentative, said the official, that the agency did not believe it was necessary to inform Congress or senior White House officials, including the president, vice president, and national-security adviser, about them.
The extreme secrecy surrounding the program led seven Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee to publicly accuse top CIA officials of concealing "significant actions" from the Congress dating back to 2001. The members have refused to give details about the plans, which remain classified. But The New York Times reported this weekend that Vice President Dick Cheney directed the CIA to withhold information about the program from the House and Senate intelligence oversight panels.
Cheney has not commented. Two former officials familiar with Cheney's role in the scheme maintained that the program was not the former vice president's idea; one of the officials said that when discussion about the program surfaced at the CIA during the final years of the Bush administration, Cheney was not involved in any way and that Cheney was not, at least late in the administration, responsible for ordering the agency to continue to withhold information about the program from Congress. Instead, the agency itself decided to withhold congressional briefings because it did not believe that the program had become operationally advanced enough to warrant them. But other officials confirmed to NEWSWEEK that Cheney was involved in discussions about the program and had pressed the CIA not to inform Congress about it. Some of the officials said that Cheney's involvement may turn out be the most politically explosive aspect of the controversy.
Government officials say that neither the intelligence community nor the White House was especially concerned about whether the proposed kill teams violated the law. Several officials familiar with the dispute say there is no reason to believe setting up special CIA squads to track and kill Al Qaeda terrorists overseas went beyond broad legal authorities that President Bush granted to the CIA after 9/11. Those powers had been tested before. In November 2002, the CIA sent a drone to launch Hellfire missiles on a jeep in Yemen, killing Qaaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a top Al Qaeda operative, as well as Kamel Derwish, a U.S. citizen who was traveling with him. "Why would anyone be shocked or surprised by plans to pursue terrorists overseas?" said one official. "That's part of the CIA's mission. This particular program never went fully operational, but others—duly briefed to the Congress—certainly have."
According to the 9/11 commission, in December 1998, four months after Al Qaeda attacked two U.S. embassies in Africa, President Clinton signed a "memorandum of notification" that first authorized the CIA to use Afghan tribesmen to kill Osama bin Laden, if it became necessary during an operation intended to capture him. Clinton later softened that directive in a subsequent February 1999 memorandum, which led to confusion about how far the agency could go in hunting Al Qaeda's top operative, according to the commission report.
At the time, agency officials under Clinton were reluctant to conduct operations that might result in the killing of top terrorist leaders overseas, according to Richard Clarke, who served as Clinton's top counterterrorism adviser. "They just didn't want to do it," said Clarke. But all ambiguity about the agency's "kill" authority was eliminated after 9/11. On Sept. 25, 2001, President Bush approved revised orders that were as "as broad a brush to kill Al Qaeda" as any intelligence program in U.S. history, said one official. White House officials and intelligence agencies drew up lists of names of terrorists targeted for attack, according to current and former officials.
Two officials familiar with details noted that none of the Democrats on Capitol Hill who have stoked the uproar over the program have alleged it was illegal. But even if it was legal under post-9/11 authorities, it is not hard to understand why a "kill" squad comparable to the Mossad's "Wrath Of God" teams, which were dispatched to kill terrorists throughout Europe after the Munich Olympics, were a touchy subject within the agency. Aside from the risk of exposure, there was also the risk of mistakes or collateral damage. As part of the Israeli operation, for example, one Mossad team mistakenly assassinated an innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway whom they mistook for a top Palestinian terrorist. The hit resulted in the capture and imprisonment of some of the Mossad agents.
It's not the legality or wisdom of the program that has many members of Congress angry at the CIA—it's that they say they were kept in the dark about it. Current and former U.S. intelligence officials asserted that, had the agency briefed Congress about the program, the legislators likely would have supported the additional efforts to kill terrorist leaders. Both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as congressional intelligence committees, have been strong supporters of an ongoing campaign by the Pentagon and CIA that uses unmanned drone aircraft to track and kill suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It was CIA Director Panetta who inadvertently touched off the current controversy on June 24 when he gave what one official described as "emergency briefings" to House and Senate Intelligence Committee members. Panetta described how he had recently learned about the program and issued an order terminating it. Officials said Panetta also told the committees that Cheney had ordered the agency not to share information with Congress about the program. Now some former officials and agency supporters on Capitol Hill are accusing Panetta of maladroitly handling the controversy by exaggerating Cheney's role, thereby feeding red meat to the agency's enemies and dealing a self-inflicted wound to an agency already besieged over allegations of other Bush-era lapses, including the use of harsh interrogation techniques on captured terror suspects.
Despite the drama and finger-pointing, the details of the program remain largely unknown. The CIA, not surprisingly, is doing its best to keep it that way. Said spokesman Paul Gimigliano: "The agency has not commented on the substance of the effort, which is still, at this stage, highly classified."