The Wall Street Journal has reported that the secret CIA program, allegedly ordered concealed from Congress by then vice president Dick Cheney, was a plan to kill or capture Al-Qaeda operatives, in response to a 2001 directive of Pres. George W. Bush. The secret program’s existence —though not its details— became known last week when sources involved in the CIA director’s testimony on the issue made known Cheney’s involvement in ordering the CIA not disclose the program’s existence to Congress.
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.
Since the story broke late Saturday, Democratic leaders have been calling for investigations and alleging the former vice president broke the law by ordering the CIA to conceal evidence of the program. The news came as numerous reports called into question the effectiveness and/or legality of Bush-era practices, such as backing of Afghan warlords, the use of warrantless wiretapping and CIA secrecy.
The Minneapolis St. Paul Star Tribune reports that “Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, the head of the intelligence committee, suggests the Bush administration broke the law by concealing the program from Congress.” Numerous sources have suggested the plan was kept secret precisely because its methods and/or aims involved fundamental violations of US or international law.
The UK’s Telegraph newspaper reports:
A small unit examined the potential for killing al-Qaeda members, despite the fact Gerald Ford banned assassinations following CIA abuses in Latin America in the 1970s, according to former intelligence officials.
Advocates of the plan wanted to create co-ordinated teams of CIA agents and special forces troops to hunt down terrorist leaders.
Targeted killings of that kind would be a violation of international law, and would violate not only US law regarding executive powers and military action, but also the constraints of the US constitutional system, which requires due process of law, within a recognized judicial process, before punishments, up to and including capital punishment, can be meted out.
Many members of Congress, from both parties, have already said the concealing of the program is worrying and may violate the law, but some have also added that there needs to be an accounting of whether or not the reportedly “not fully operational” status of the secret program might mean some field “tests” had been carried out. There is concern that force may have been used in one or more cases in order to “study” the efficacy of the proposed CIA program.
According to the Journal report:
Senior CIA leaders were briefed two or three times on the most recent iteration of the initiative, the last time in the spring of 2008. At that time, CIA brass said that the effort should be narrowed and that Congress should be briefed if the preparations reached a critical stage, a former senior intelligence official said.
Congress was not briefed until 24 June 2009, one day after the current CIA director Leon Panetta was first briefed on the program, and had ordered its cessation. No clear information has been given as to why the CIA did not brief Congressional intelligence leaders after the 2008 recommendation to do so.
The argument has been made that Cheney and other top officials may not be legally “guilty” of crimes against the Constitution, if their intent is seen somehow not to have been to circumvent or flout the law. But even an article arguing that Cheney may have “meant well”, suggests that “the media’s kneejerk acceptance of this framing, its buying the idea that this dispute is typical Washington posturing, is both lazy and cynical.”
The news of an alleged secret assassination program, deliberately concealed from Congress, comes as Pres. Obama has ordered an investigation into the alleged killing of as many as 2,000 Taliban prisoners of war by CIA-linked warlords, during the invasion and ousting of the Taliban government in 2001-2002.
As revelations of worrying alleged violations of law seem to pile up, the mood in Washington appears to be shifting toward some sort of investigation into the security policies of the two Bush terms, from 2001 to 2009, and the “war on terror”. The Telegraph notes:
Justice department officials have said [Attorney General] Holder’s own view has also shifted as he has reviewed reams of classified material which suggested that some interrogators may have violated anti-torture statutes as well as the new parameters set by the Bush administration.
His department is obliged to investigate such possible violations.
Obama has persistently said he wants to look to the future and not to the past, but has also said he would like Holder to examine the legal foundation for allegations of wrongdoing and to make recommendations regarding the possible need for legal action to investigate or prosecute such acts, if they are found to have occurred. No formal decision has been made on prosecution of officials for alleged crimes, though Obama has voiced support for the immunity of government agents who were told their actions were within the law.