What and why behind CIA counterterror issue
By Michael Muskal
WASHINGTON — Barely 6 months old, the Obama administration faces a political problem caused by how the CIA handled a secret counterterrorism program. Although President Barack Obama has insisted he wants to look forward and push an ambitious domestic agenda, a series of intelligence-related issues has the administration and Congress looking back at the George W. Bush years. Here is a primer of what we know.
Q. What is going on?
A. CIA Director Leon Panetta briefed congressional committees last month about a program to put elite paramilitary teams into areas such as Pakistan where they could kill or capture top al-Qaida operatives. The program was kept secret from Congress for more than seven years at the request of former Vice President Dick Cheney, according to members of Congress and former intelligence officials. The program was never operational and even seems to have been dormant at various points. When word of the program's existence recently surfaced, Panetta canceled it and informed Congress.
The CIA has been reluctant to discuss the operation publicly, but CIA spokesman George Little said: "The program (Panetta) killed was never fully operational and never took a single terrorist off the battlefield. We've had a string of successes against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, and that program didn't contribute to any of them."
Q. If the program is dead, what is the problem?
A. There are two areas of concern, legal and political.
Q. What are the legal issues?
A. President Gerald Ford in 1976 banned the CIA from carrying out assassinations. The order came after revelations that the CIA tried and failed to assassinate leaders such as Fidel Castro during the late 1960s. Based on that, there are questions about any CIA assassination program being legal. Some people say that killing U.S. foes, such as enemy combatants, is not illegal.
The second problem is that the agency kept the program secret from Congress, which oversees the agency's activities, and did so at the request of Cheney.
Q. Did the CIA violate the law?
A. Defenders of the CIA say no, while some Democratic lawmakers say yes.
The canceled program was authorized by a 2001 presidential finding, say the agency's defenders, who note the frenzied atmosphere in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Bush administration made no secret of its eagerness to find al-Qaida leaders. The war on terrorism, which weakened civil rights in general, also is invoked to explain the CIA program.
That the CIA program failed to reach operational status is noted by defenders to justify that Congress was not told.
Q. What are the political issues?
A. The latest disclosure comes at a time of increased anger by Democrats at the Bush administration over the CIA specifically, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in general and the use of techniques some call torture against detainees as part of the war on terrorism.
Q. Has there been action by the Obama administration?
A. Attorney General Eric Holder is considering appointing a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of torture, according to widely quoted anonymous Justice Department officials. Whether that probe goes to Cheney is unknown.