Since the news broke (sub. req.) at the start of the week that CIA director Leon Panetta had pulled the plug on a secret program to assassinate or capture al Qaeda leaders, we’ve been raising questions about one key aspect of the story. In particular, what was it about the program that was so shocking that Dick Cheney reportedly ordered it kept secret from Congress, Panetta quashed it as soon as he heard about it, and Congressional Democrats risked being painted as soft on terror by shrieking about being kept in the dark?
We may have gotten a good piece of the answer here: The Washington Post reports today on how the program had been revived and then put on hold several times since 2001. But it also says, referring to the “presidential finding” with which President Bush authorized the program in 2001:
The finding imposed no geographical limitations on the agency’s actions, and intelligence officials have said that they were not obliged to notify Congress of each operation envisaged under the directive.
“No geographical limitations” presumably means that operations could potentially be carried out in countries, friendly or unfriendly, that are far from any war zone — including even the US itself. And it seems likely that they would be carried out without notifying the foreign country in question.
Of course, we’ve frequently, and quite openly, used the military to carry out attacks on specific Qaeda leaders — even before 9/11. But using the CIA to do so, and with such broad authority to operate anywhere in the world, as this program seems to have given the agency, would appear to take things into a different realm.
If some Congressional Democrats get their way, there’ll be an actual investigation into whether the CIA withheld information from Congress. That would mean we wouldn’t have to rely on piecing together news reports, sourced to insiders who likely have their own agendas, to get to the bottom of another crucial national security and separation of powers issue, which would be nice.