CIA, Cheney, Congress And Torture

Did former Vice President Dick Cheney order the CIA to keep Congress in the dark about a program to capture or kill al-Qaeda leaders? NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving, Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Peter Hoekstra discuss a potential congressional investigation. Meanwhile, will Attorney General Eric Holder appoint a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of torture during the Bush administration?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. While President Obama repeatedly says he wants to look forward, not back, investigations into the practices of the Bush administration are moving ahead on a couple of different fronts.

The Justice Department confirms that Attorney General Eric Holder is considering the appointment of a prosecutor to investigate allegations of torture, and congressional intelligence committees may follow up on reports that the Central Intelligence Agency developed plans to assassinate leaders of al-Qaida and failed to inform Congress, reportedly under instructions from then-Vice President Dick Cheney.

Many Democrats have been pressing for wide-ranging investigations of the previous administration. Many others warn that partisan passions would threaten the president's hopes on any number of issues, and many Republicans maintain the investigations could undermine national security.

Later in this program, NPR's Linton Weeks will join us to share stories of dementia-driven wanderers, where they go and what we know about why. But first, if you have questions about what we know and what we don't and the political repercussions of potential investigations, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to NPR.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor, joins us here in Studio 3A. Hey, Ron.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And there are several issues at play here. Let's take them one at a time, and we'll start with the possibility of a special prosecutor. What makes that happen? What would they investigate?

ELVING: A special prosecutor has to be appointed by the attorney general, and the president of the United States can indicate he wants one, but he can't make one happen.

If we remember back to the Clinton era, when there were a number of special prosecutors under a somewhat different statute at the time who were brought out to investigate various elements of the Clinton administration - of course, including the president, famously - those were not appointed at the behest of the president, but rather the attorney general of that time, Janet Reno. And that was where the authority rests in law.

So it would be Eric Holder, the attorney general, who would appoint a prosecutor to look into any of the allegations that have been made with respect to the handling of the war on terror, counterterrorism, interrogation of terrorism suspects by the Bush administration.

Now, both President Bush and Attorney General - excuse me, President Obama and Attorney General Holder have said they consider waterboarding to be torture, but they have also said that any CIA operatives who acted under the guidelines published by the Bush administration would not face prosecution. What's changed?

ELVING: Well, they would have been acting under the color of law and the four corners of the law, to choose a couple of terms of art that have been thrown around lately. They were told that they could do it, and the administration, the current administration, has made clear they don't have some sort of vendetta against the CIA - or don't want to be perceived as having.

So they don't want to go after people who did what they told was all right at the time. We clearly know that a lot of waterboarding was done. The Bush administration did not consider waterboarding to be torture, did not consider it to be outside the bounds of our policy or our laws at the time. That's where one of the big differences lies, and that's one of the rubs.

If you've got a big difference in policy and definition, and you as the new administration, the Obama administration, do consider waterboarding torture, does that mean that you should then prosecute anyone who - thinking under the old administration they were doing something lawful - did what they were told?

CONAN: Yet we're told that Attorney General Holder is now considering prosecutions of people who conducted what he regards as torture.

ELVING: Some kind of interrogation, some kind of extreme interrogation that would go beyond the bounds of what was permitted at the time, possibly people who were working for the government but not actual officials of the government - possibly contractors, people who were under some sort of contract to work for the CIA or some other element of the United States government, but who were not actual employees, per se, of the government.

I know a lot of that sounds like fine-point legalese, but when you're talking about whether or not somebody's going to be prosecuted, those are the terms. That's the language you have to use.

CONAN: And this would not, then - this would be a fairly narrow focus, then, not a wide-ranging investigation of any number of people who may have conducted interrogations under the Bush administration, but a few people who may have gone beyond the pale of those Bush-administration guidelines.

ELVING: That appears to be what Eric Holder is, in fact, considering. It is not the same thing as what many people are calling for. Many people are calling for something quite different. And, of course, I suppose if Eric Holder does come out with a fairly narrow investigation such as you just described, there are going to be those who are bitterly disappointed if that's as far as it's going to go, as there will also be those who call it a witch hunt, and they'll say it's politically motivated.

CONAN: Now let's move on to the more recent revelations and that, indeed, goes to Congress' relations with the Central Intelligence Agency and news that what we now believe to be an assassination squad was set up in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, or at least the idea of one was set up. And Congress was never informed about this, apparently, allegedly, reportedly, under direct instructions from the then-vice president.

ELVING: Well, let's try to unpack that a little bit. In the period of time immediately after 9/11, in the fall of 2001, the president issued a finding on the basis of which the CIA and other agents of the U.S. government went off in a number of directions, trying to find ways to get at the people responsible for 9/11.

We came to know that group as al-Qaida. We started looking for members of al-Qaida wherever they might be around the world, with every asset we could bring to bear. And one of the programs the CIA apparently developed - at least conceptually, at the time - was to create these hit squads or teams of people, paramilitary teams that would go into countries - obviously, other than the United States, but countries perhaps that we weren't necessarily immediately contemplating, such as Afghanistan - look for members of al-Qaida and either capture or assassinate them, and with some emphasis, I think, here on probably assassinating them right from the beginning.

I say I think because as best as we know, they didn't carry out any such missions, and they never really reached the operational phase - or at least that's what the reporting, generally speaking, has indicated up to now.

We haven't seen any specific allegations of specific strikes that were made by such teams or specific allegations that certain people were captured or killed by any such teams.

Now, not everyone sees it that way. There have been discussions, not necessarily published reports, but people who have talked in public, including the well-known independent investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, about a program that sounds a lot like this that started around the same time and which he, at least, has characterized as being more operational.

So we're going to see some debate about this, but so up to this date, so far, we have not seen specific allegations of people who were killed by such teams.

CONAN: Now, there is a similar program about which these is apparently very little controversy, and that involves these CIA-operated drones which fly over several countries, but most notably Pakistan. And every week or so, sometimes twice a week, we hear them firing missiles at militant suspects and blowing them up.

These are targeted killings, assassinations by any other word, and sometimes they make mistakes and hit the wrong people. Yet why is there no controversy about that, and there is controversy about trying to go in and take people out one by one?

ELVING: I think we should say there is controversy about the Predator drones, and about going into communities by electronic remote control and firing missiles from this unmanned vehicle in the sky and killing people.

Now, let's assume first off that the people who they are trying to kill are, in some sense or another, targets:people who are running al-Qaida, people who are terrorist threats to the United States. That's one consideration. But almost by definition, you're going to have a certain amount of collateral damage. That's going to include other people who get killed.

They may be lieutenants. They may be equally culpable in some battlefield sense, or they may not. They may be totally innocent bystanders. So, yeah, there's controversy about that, too, but not in the sense of the Bush administration versus the Obama administration because these attacks you're describing are going forward today under the Obama administration, with this administration's express permission and control. So it's not between those two administrations. It's not between Republicans and Democrats.

CONAN: And Congress was told from the beginning about what those drones were and what they were doing - apparently not the case with these assassination squads.

ELVING: Yes. And as has been the case back over the history of the CIA, oftentimes the controversy has been, in part, about what they're actually doing, but it's also largely about whether or not they're keeping people informed of what they're doing.

Now in the old days, back before some of the reforms in the 1970s, no bones were made about keeping Congress in the dark, really. But since the creation of these intelligence committees - one in the House, one in the Senate, select committees on intelligence - they have been obligated to inform at least the chair and the senior ranking member - that's the minority party's senior member - on each of those committees, in addition to the top Republican and Democrat in the House and in the Senate.

So that's what's then called the gang of eight. Sometimes it's an eight-person group that has to be informed of what the CIA is doing. Apparently, they were never informed about these SWAT teams, whatever you want to call them, hit teams.

CONAN: And again, apparently, we don't know that these ever were operational, and the program has since been canceled.

ELVING: That's right, and certainly that'll be the justification that other people will put forward. They'll say that the emphasis in the program shifted to these unmanned Predators, these drones, because they were a little more effective and a little more easily put into the field. The hit teams were not so easily organized, not so easily introduced into the field. But if we go all the way back to the very beginning, the National Security Act, there was not that much of a distinction made between informing people about actual activities and what were called significant anticipated activities.

So it would seem there's a case to be made that if Congress had a right to know about any of this, they had a right to know about plans to have hit teams.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Perry's on the line, calling from Rockingham, North Carolina. Perry?

PERRY (Caller): Good afternoon, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead.

PERRY: Neal, just one quick one. Did you find out who Norman Schwarzkopf's father was? I asked you that question in (unintelligible), and let me go ahead and make my point.

This investigation of the president, or Vice President Cheney, former vice president, only seems to deal with terrorists in foreign countries. I think this must be investigated to find out if there were any boundaries whatsoever on the program.

Could they also assassinate an al-Qaida operative in the United States, or were there boundaries? If this has been discussed for seven years, certainly this question must have come up.

CONAN: Well, as to Norman Schwarzkopf's father, I can't help you there, Perry. But Ron, in terms of legal justifications, it is a very different question whether you're talking about the United States or anywhere else.

ELVING: Yes. As we've seen with the wire-tapping questions and the Foreign Surveillance Act, there are enormous distinctions that are drawn between what the CIA can do overseas in pursuit of its missions, and what it can do in the United States. And of course, it is not supposed to operate here. It is not supposed to be carrying out any of these activities here.

Now, once we get into a territory where there are no released, unclassified documents, and we're getting our information from people who speak without giving their names, on background, and when we're getting our information from people who may have seen notes of a meeting they were not present at, a lot of this detail is obviously lacking. That will, of course, be a question that's asked if there is a further investigation, and this House Intelligence Committee is looking at it, but if there's any kind of further investigation of it, that would be a big question.

CONAN: In just a moment, we'll be talking with two members of the House Intelligence Committee. Democratic Congressman Jan Schakowsky will join us, as she's called for an investigation into why the CIA was not known, did not - was not told about the secret assassination program. We'll also talk with the ranking Republican member, Peter Hoekstra. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're discussing an alleged secret CIA assassination program to take out al-Qaida leaders. If you have questions about what we know and what we don't, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at NPR.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving is with us. And joining us now from Capitol Hill is congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois who chairs the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Good of you to be with us today.

Representative JAN SCHAKOWSKY (Democrat, Illinois; Chairperson, House Intelligence Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations): Thank you.

CONAN: And why are you calling for investigation?

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Well, I think there are two big issues that have been revealed: one, that there was a secret program that existed from 2001 to 2009, that as soon as the new director of the CIA heard about it, Leon Panetta, he canceled it; and two, that the Congress was explicitly excluded from knowledge about this program, and that that was done at the highest levels, that Dick Cheney directed that the Congress not be informed.

So we need to look at both pieces of it. What was the program, and why were we kept in the dark?

CONAN: As you know, at least according to what we read in the papers, the program, some would say, never got to the stage where it required Congress to be informed.

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: You know, I think that characterization is, at very best, premature. I think people who are saying that ought to be very, very careful, and that's why we need an investigation. I think people ought to step back from that.

I'm not saying that I know for sure that there were actual activities going on. But it's hard for me, number one, to believe that if it was a big deal enough not to want to inform the Congress, that it didn't go anywhere over the eight years. So I think that we need to look very carefully into what that program was.

CONAN: And would such an investigation - obviously, these are highly sensitive matters. How much would we hear about it? How much would this be in open session?

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Well, I think perhaps the part that deals with whether or not Congress was informed, should have been informed, that part of the decision perhaps could be part of a public hearing. The other thing is, we've had a number of hearings where we conduct a portion of it in public and then go into closed session, and you know, there may be opportunities to do that.

I feel that, as a member of the Intelligence Committee, that we have a tendency to overclassify things, anyway. And so I think if we make a self-conscious effort to figure out where we can discuss in public, that we're - there's part of this, I hope, that we'll be able to.

CONAN: And just - would former Vice President Cheney be subpoenaed to talk in front of this committee?

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Well, that's one of the things we certainly have to discuss. In the past, the vice president has asserted presidential - executive privilege on a number of things. It wouldn't surprise me if he were to do it in this instance, as well. On the other hand, he might be willing, since he's been so talkative about things that have gone on, might be willing to come before our committee. But we have not determined what a witness list would be, but we certainly will.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in. This is Alexandra, Alexandra with us from Boulder, Colorado.

ALEXANDRA (Caller): Hi, good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

ALEXANDRA: So I guess two things. One, I was in London in between both bombings a few years ago and had ridden the subway just the day before, the same line that was attacked. So I really, definitely, in that moment had, you know, tremendous fear about terrorists and so forth. And I guess as a result, you know, I think that every time the CIA sneezes, do we need to report that?

I think in World War II, the motto was loose lips sink ships. And I'm sure there were all kinds of covert operations going on at that time that were not informed to the public - or, you know, the public wasn't informed about. And I just wonder how we got from there to here, where basically every time, you know, the CIA might want to engage in some kind of operation against someone, they're supposed to report that to Congress and to the press. I don't see how we could have an effective terror - anti-terrorist campaign when everything has to be reported to Congress.

But I guess I'm not really sure where the line should be drawn, but I'm not sure it's so blatant that every single thing that goes on at the CIA really needs to be reported to the public.

CONAN: Congresswoman Schakowsky?

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Well, first of all, it isn't reported to the public, and members of the Intelligence Committee are bound by law not to disclose, and in fact, there's - I can't think of a leak that has actually come from the committees themselves. We take that very seriously. And of course, after 9/11, when this program went into effect, there was agreement across the aisle. There was agreement between the Congress and the administration about the seriousness of the terrorist attacks.

So it's - there's - you know, one should not presume, first of all, that such matters would be sent out to the public in any way, and two, that the Congress would not have authorized such - whatever that program was. But the reason that sensitive issues cannot just be conducted by an organization like the CIA that does operate in secret, have been abuses. And the Church Commission in the 1970s fundamentally changed this so that Congress, behind closed doors, in secret sessions, classified completely, do oversee the activities of the intelligence community.

I can't imagine in a democracy that anyone would really want a force that's used - that can use lethal action, can actually be perhaps authorized to kill people, without some kind of oversight. And that's also not to say that, as part of that oversight, that that kind of authority would be dismissed.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Alexandra.

ALEXANDRA: All right. Well, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And finally, Congresswoman Schakowsky, there would, some people warn, be a political price to pay for such an investigation, which would be seen by some as excessively partisan and might cost the administration support on other issues that are also important.

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Well, I have to tell you that in the Intelligence Committee - I've served on the Intelligence Committee only for two and a half years, and in that time, I can think of four instances where the Congress was either lied to, and that was - one of those instances, it was agreed to on both sides of the aisle that we'd been lied to. That was the shoot-down of a plane in Peru. And this particular instance, when we found out from the newspapers and television about the destruction of tapes of CIA interrogations, and one other that still remains classified.

So, you know, I don't know what you call a pattern, but we certainly have seen a number of situations where the entire committee - not just the Democrats, but the Republicans as well - have been pretty fed up with the CIA for not telling us things in a timely way or presenting misleading information, having - our having to drag it out of them, or being directly lied to.

So, you know, I would hope that this would not dissolve into a partisan situation, that all members of the intelligence committee would agree that we need to get information, we need to get it straight and truthful and, you know, so I hope it won't be just about Republicans and Democrats.

CONAN: Congressman Schakowsky, thanks very much for your time today.

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Thank you.

CONAN: Jan Schakowsky chairs the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation. She spoke with us on the phone from Capitol Hill.

Joining us now, a Republican from Michigan, Peter Hoekstra, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee. He's the ranking Republican, actually, and is, by virtue of that position, one of the group of eight. And nice to have you back on the program.

Representative PETER HOEKSTRA (Republican, Michigan): Hey, thank you. Good to be with you.

CONAN: And I know you heard some of that conversation with your fellow committee member, Jan Schakowsky. Is there a pattern of the CIA lying to the intelligence committees?

Rep. HOEKSTRA: Well, I don't think we can establish that. I think by and large, the intelligence community, when they come to Capitol Hill, their bias is to share information with us. Sometimes it's a little bit more difficult to get the specifics out of them than what I would like to think, but I think, you know, we're stretching it here when we're saying that there is a pattern of deceit.

You know, I think that whether it was, you know, Leon Panetta, Mike Hayden, George Tenet, I think they recognize that they have an accountability and a responsibility to Congress to keep us informed as to what's going on.

CONAN: From what you know of it, does it trouble you that you- in this case, you were a member of the gang of eight at the time - that you and the other members of the committees were not informed of this program that we've been hearing about just in the last few days?

Rep. HOEKSTRA: Actually, I don't share the same kind of concern that some other members have expressed. Number one, we don't have all the details. From the details that have been made public, it appears that this was a program that less than $1 million was spent on. It was on and off again, and it was never operationalized.

And, you know, there are other allegations out there that it dealt with the, you know, the targeting - excuse me - of top al-Qaida leaders directly in the aftermath of 2000, 2001, 9/11. I don't think that should be a surprise to anybody that the CIA, the Defense Department, that at that point in time, they were thinking about how to contain, capture and potentially kill the leadership of al-Qaida.

And so the - I think the important thing, at least according to press reports, is that this program was never operationalized. I don't need to be informed of every idea that the CIA thinks about. I do need to be aware of programs that they operationalize where they put, you know, strategies into effect, into place.

CONAN: Does it trouble you, or do you want to know more, anyway, when we hear reports that the then-vice president of the United States specifically tells people - again, reportedly - don't tell Congress?

Rep. HOEKSTRA: Well, again, I mean, we may want to know more. I don't even know what the president - or the vice president's motivation might have been. The vice president's motivation might have been, you know, we really don't need to brief Congress on this, because you know what? This administration isn't going to participate or do this kind of a program. We're not going forward.

Or - I've been in the gang of eight briefings. I've been in the gang of four briefings. And I can tell you that when we get to a program that is briefed that narrowly, all their ducks are in a row. They've got the answers. They know that in those types of meetings, you know, they will get tough questions from the leadership in Congress as to the programs that they're contemplating. And the president - vice president may just have said, you know what? This program's not ready to go. You're not ready to brief Congress. And then you've got other people out there saying - I guess, Mike Hayden, a former director of the CIA, has been quoted as saying the vice president - nobody ever told me not to brief this to Congress.

So, I mean, there's a lot of different stories out there right now as to what happened with never getting briefed on something that never happened.

CONAN: General Hayden, of course, just the CIA director of the last couple of years.

Rep. HOEKSTRA: Yup.

CONAN: Not back in 2001. Anyway, let's see if we can get a caller in. This is Daniel, Daniel calling from Fort Myers.

DANIEL (Caller): Hi. Yeah. I just want to say, I kind of fall in between parties. Sometimes I vote Democrat, and sometimes I vote Republican. But this kind of conversation consistently pushes me away from the Democratic Party.

I think it's just an utter waste of time that we're hashing out these types of things. The nature of war is ugly, and it involves violence. And I'm antiwar. But when you are engaged in war, it seems completely rational and reasonable that the president and the vice president would create programs to assassinate the people that are trying to kill us. And in a way, that's even more humane than lobbing a bomb and having all kinds of collateral - I mean, I just - this seems to be something that the Democrats like to pursue, and I just think it's a waste of time.

CONAN: I wonder if you have a response to that, Congressman Hoekstra.

Rep. HOEKSTRA: Well, I mean, I think, you know, the term assassination is, you know, sometimes has all these negative connotations to it. I'm not sure what we describe that what we're doing right now in Afghanistan - and there's press reports that say that this is going on in Pakistan as well - that when al-Qaida leadership or al-Qaida personnel or suspects identified and targeted in either Pakistan or Afghanistan, you drop a, you know, you drop a 500-pound bomb or a Hellfire missile on the compound.

You know, I don't know whether technically, you call that an assassination or not. But at the end of that process, at the end of that missile going in, you have a suspected or, you know, very much verified al-Qaida leadership and members who are dead at the end of the process. There is nothing pretty, there is nothing - you know, there's nothing kind about war. It is just hard. It's difficult, and it's complicated.

CONAN: Daniel, thanks very much.

DANIEL: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Peter Hoekstra from Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. Also, Ron Elving is here, our senior Washington editor.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Andrew's on the line, calling from San Antonio.

ANDREW (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call. I just want to first comment on a couple of Representative Hoekstra's comments. I mean, he's very right and that, you know, it's very tough to take any position on this program when we have little to no information. But I think that, you know, that in itself is a problem, is that we've got a series of responses to 9/11 that were outside of the legal framework that was set up for the intelligence community to use its resources and to, you know, develop programs to respond to this stuff.

And I think that, you know, this program and the fact we know nothing about it, it's not necessarily whether or not we should have been assassinating people as much as why didn't Congress know about it if that's what was taking place? And I think it's part of a larger problem that, you know, where the Bush administration was disregarding laws, using war as an excuse. And I think that undermines the rule of law in this country. And I think that it basically - you know, we have a two-tiered justice system in which our head political leaders don't - aren't held accountable for their law-breaking and lawlessness. And I think this is just a part of a bigger picture here where, you know, once again, they're just bypassing the rule of law.

CONAN: Congressman?

Rep. HOEKSTRA: Yeah. I think Andrew brings up some great points that I strongly disagree with. All of the - I don't think there have been any - I've got to be careful. I can't think of major programs that have been conducted by the previous administration that have been proven to be outside of the law or done by the administrative - the administration.

The Terrorist Surveillance Program, the one that is frequently highlighted, the former - or the current speaker of the House was briefed on that program five times within the first 13 months after that program was implemented after 9/11.

She thought - she, as well as the president and other elected leadership in the House and the Senate thought it was legal, thought it was necessary and appropriate - same thing with the financial tracking system, same thing with enhanced interrogation techniques. And I believe all the press reports indicate there's not a whole lot that we don't know about the program.

The key thing that we do know about the program, and Andrew alludes to the fact that if it was about assassinations and those things took place, one of the things that I think all the press reports clearly indicate is that Leon Panetta said the program was never operationalized, meaning that if the program was about assassinations, no one was ever killed by that program.

It was a program that was allegedly discussed. It was talked about. There might have been some planning dollars, and it was never implemented. It was never given the go-ahead by the previous administration and it was never, therefore, reviewed by Congress.

You know, all the other - many of the other - if not all of the other programs that were operationalized, the record is clear. Congress, on a bipartisan basis, was briefed on those programs and they actually bought into those programs and supported it.

CONAN: Just to point out, there is some dispute on the enhanced interrogation part, but Congressman Hoekstra, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Rep. HOEKSTRA: Great. Thank you.

CONAN: He's the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, with us today from Capitol Hill. We thank Ron Elving for his time again, as always, the NPR senior Washington editor.

Coming up next: NPR's Linton Weeks with stories of wandering. Stay with us.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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How Far Did CIA Assassination Plans Go?

CIA Director Leon Panetta i i

CIA Director Leon Panetta during a visit to the Philippines earlier this month. Panetta told Congress that he has canceled a CIA program that could have created hit squads to kill terrorist leaders overseas. Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images
CIA Director Leon Panetta

CIA Director Leon Panetta during a visit to the Philippines earlier this month. Panetta told Congress that he has canceled a CIA program that could have created hit squads to kill terrorist leaders overseas.

Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images

The controversy over a covert CIA plan to assassinate senior al-Qaida leaders has devolved into a mass of unanswered questions and contradictory answers. The plan, as reported Tuesday by The New York Times and other news media, called for the formation of small teams to kill terrorist leaders abroad.

The plan reportedly was never fully carried out, and it remained secret, even from Congress, from its conception after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 until last month, when CIA director Leon Panetta announced that he was canceling it. Panetta told congressional intelligence committees that he had only recently become aware of the program, when he was briefed on it by the CIA's counterterrorism center.

Panetta said the existence of the program was kept secret from lawmakers at the instruction of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in an interview with the Associated Press. Although the program reportedly never got beyond the discussion stage, Democrats in Congress were outraged that oversight committees were never advised that such ideas were being considered.

Was Cheney Involved?

Former CIA director Michael Hayden told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly on Monday that he was never told by Cheney to withhold the information. "I never felt I had any impediment in briefing Congress," he said.

Hayden, who became head of the CIA in 2006 and served until January of this year, was speaking only of his time at the agency, though, and not of the early period after 2001 when Cheney might have intervened.

The idea of CIA assassination teams evokes movie-style images of black-clad specialists climbing through windows to silently garrote their targets.

In reality, it's hard to tell how far the program got. It appears to have gotten past the point of doodling on napkins at the agency cafeteria. Lawmakers who have been briefed say some money was spent, but it's not clear whether teams were ever up and running.

Current and former government officials have told NPR's Kelly that the interest in the plan waxed and waned over the years, but that it hung on because officials wanted a more precise way to eliminate terrorists than missile strikes on suspected al-Qaida sites. The missile strikes, often carried out by drone aircraft, have frequently resulted in civilian casualties.

Legal Questions Abound

Ongoing questions about the plan include whether it was legal in several respects. Did it violate the assassination ban imposed by former President Gerald Ford in a 1976 executive order? That ban was aimed at attempts on the lives of foreign leaders. Supporters of the plan argue that al-Qaida leaders are legitimate targets, no different from soldiers on a battlefield.

Targeted assassinations, they say, would be no different from what the U.S. is trying to accomplish with unmanned Predator drone missile attacks in Pakistan, a Bush administration tactic that President Obama has continued.

Opponents note that the CIA does not have the legal status of the uniformed military, and isn't covered under the law of war. They question what the diplomatic repercussions might have been if CIA paramilitary teams were caught inside another country in the middle of an operation.

Supporters of the plan also dispute the notion that Congress should have been briefed. On the one hand, they say, the plan simply wasn't advanced enough to warrant notification. On the other, they say the flap that arose after Panetta briefed Congress on the program shows the danger of exposing a highly sensitive and secret program to the risk of congressional leaks.

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