Now today, the Wall Street Journal reports (sub. req.) that the program was an effort to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives, prompted by a 2001 presidential finding authorizing the CIA to conduct such a program. The Journal adds that the program never became fully operational before Panetta shut it down. The report, sourced to "former intelligence officials familiar with the matter," appears to jibe in some respects with comments made by New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh at a public event earlier this year, in which he referred to an "executive assassination ring" reporting to Cheney.
But there's reason to believe we still don't have anything like the full story. First of all, according to one of the Journal's sources, both Cheney and President Bush opposed what seems to be a particularly aggressive iteration of the program, involving using "teams of CIA and military Special Forces commandos to emulate what the Israelis did after the Munich Olympics terrorist attacks," by carrying out targeted assassinations.
That doesn't appear to line up with the Times' report that Cheney was behind the decision to keep Congress in the dark about the secret program, though strictly speaking it doesn't contradict it.
But there are other reasons to keep asking questions:
Perhaps most importantly, a program, launched immediately after September 11 to capture or kill top al Qaeda operatives just doesn't seem sufficiently radioactive to have provoked the kerfuffle it has. To be sure, Congress outlawed targeted CIA assassinations in the 1970s in response to the excesses of 50s and 60s, and the issue played a key role in the move during the same period to give Congress greater powers to oversee the agency. And if the program allowed CIA to act without the consent or knowledge of liaison services in the countries where the targets were located, that's obviously a big deal.
Still, the US military has openly been trying to get Osama bin Laden and other top Qaeda leaders "dead or alive" since shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Would CIA involvement in that effort be so explosive that it would not only need to be kept from Congress in the first place, but would also have been shut down by Panetta as soon as he learned about it?
By the same token, it was Democratic lawmakers who brought the issue into the news last week by complaining that they had for years been kept in the dark on the unidentified program. Would they have chosen to initiate that spat when it seems to allow them to be portrayed as opposing an effort to hunt down al Qaeda terrorists?
We don't have answers to these questions yet, but it seems clear that there's more to be uncovered here. And given the Democratic push to look closer at the circumstances under which Congress was kept out of the loop -- as well as Panetta's own move for an informal, internal probe into CIA's handling of the program -- we may well get them.