A Secret Plan to Keep Us Safe?

The latest politically-inspired intelligence flap relates to an alleged “secret CIA program” about which, Congressional Democrats complain, they were not informed. Until today, no information had surfaced about the “secret program.” Now, the Wall Street Journal apparently has the scoop; the plan in question was a proposed effort to kill or capture high-ranking al Qaeda leaders:

A secret Central Intelligence Agency initiative terminated by Director Leon Panetta was an attempt to carry out a 2001 presidential authorization to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives, according to former intelligence officials familiar with the matter. …

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.

Nothing about this story makes a lot of sense. According to the Journal, the CIA never got past kicking around ideas about how al Qaeda leaders might be neutralized:

The official noted that Congress had long been briefed on the finding, and that the CIA effort wasn’t so much a program as “many ideas suggested over the course of years.” It hadn’t come close to fruition, he added.

If it were really true that the CIA has not been trying to kill or capture al Qaeda leaders for the last eight years, then, at last, we would have a real intelligence scandal on our hands. The Journal describes one version of the “secret plan:”

Some officials who advocated the approach were seeking to build teams of CIA and military Special Forces commandos to emulate what the Israelis did after the Munich Olympics terrorist attacks, said another former intelligence official.

The Journal’s source adds that “President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney didn’t support such an operation.” Which is disappointing if true.

As for the Democrats’ complaint that the CIA didn’t tell Congress about the “program,” if the Journal’s account is correct it appears to have little merit. The paper’s sources say that the Intelligence Committees were told about President Bush’s finding that authorized the CIA to go after al Qaeda’s leaders. Presumably they’ve been assuming in the years that have gone by since–along with the rest of us–that the CIA has been making such efforts. If, in fact, the CIA never got past brainstorming, there was nothing more that Congress needed to be told.

Still, it’s hard to believe that we’ve seen the last of this story. We know that the CIA and others did try, successfully, to capture some al Qaeda leaders, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. This presumably was done pursuant to Presidential authority. That being the case, it’s unclear what the Journal’s sources mean when they say that Bush’s directive was never implemented. It would seem that some more specific “program” must have been contemplated. As for the Democrats, it’s hard to understand how they can complain that no one told them the Bush administration was trying to kill or capture al Qaeda leaders like KSM. After all, it was in all the newspapers. But maybe they weren’t paying attention.

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