Cheney's secret CIA plan

Reports suggest plot was to assassinate al-Qaida leaders -- but never got off the ground. Will an investigation?

By Vincent Rossmeier
Published July 13, 2009 12:14PM (EDT)

In the latest twist in a story that rocked Washington over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported today that the Central Intelligence Agency program recently shut down by current director Leon Panetta was an attempt to kill or capture al-Qaida leaders. A 2001 presidential finding authorized such an endeavor. The Ford administration banned assassination of foreign leaders in the 1970s.

Panetta informed members of two congressional intelligence committees about the secretive CIA directive on June 24, a day after he terminated the effort. Democratic lawmakers were especially roiled by the revelations, which came in the wake of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's controversial claims that the intelligence agency has lied to lawmakers.

What really kicked the story into high gear was the revelation that it had been Vice President Dick Cheney who instructed the CIA to keep the program hidden from Congress. (It also revived interest in a staggering, earlier report by the New Yorker's Sy Hersh, who had previously reported allegations that Cheney ran an assassination ring during his time in office.)

While the National Security Act of 1947 allows some room for situational judgment on intelligence disclosures to Congress, it requires that congressional intelligence committees are kept fully abreast of the U.S.'s intelligence activities -- even those that are in the planning stages. Last Wednesday, seven Democratic congressional members released a letter that said Panetta told them the CIA "concealed significant actions" from Congress.

Thus, Democratic lawmakers are most upset that the CIA seemingly circumvented Congress. However, it appears that the CIA abandoned the program to target al-Qaida officials after about six months and that it was never implemented.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano has refused to comment on the report and said over the weekend that "It's not agency practice to discuss what may or may not have been said in a classified briefing ... When a CIA unit brought this matter to Director Panetta's attention, it was with the recommendation that it be shared with Congress. That was also his view, and he took swift, decisive action to put it into effect."

As speculation swirls about whether U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will open a formal investigation into Bush-era interrogation techniques and whether the administration sanctioned torture, Republicans reacted strongly to the prospect of extensive, future investigations -- as Democrats hinted they would push for them.

Reactions from major players on both sides of the aisle:


  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Sunday that Panetta told Congress that "he was told that the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to the Congress." She added, "I think this is a problem, obviously."
  • Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., told CNN that "This is a question of whether the former vice president of the United States denied certain sensitive information to the intelligence leaders in Congress ... That is not acceptable."
  • Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., supported the idea of investigations. "Where there are egregious violations, you can't just brush them under the rug," he said. "And so I think that the attorney general, to look for some egregious violations, which is what he is doing now, is the right thing to do."
  • Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., wants Congress to look into Cheney's role in concealing the program from lawmakers. "To have a massive program that is concealed from leaders in Congress is not only inappropriate; it could be illegal."


  • Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, dismissed the idea that the program progressed beyond an embryonic form and said that less than $50 million was spent on the initiative. "The idea for this kind of program was tossed around in fits and starts," he said.
  • On NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., commented, "We all know that bad things were done. We all know that the operatives who did it, most likely, were under orders to do so ... For us to continue this and harm our image throughout the world, I agree with the president of the United States: It's time to move forward and not go back ... What's going to be the positive result from airing out and ventilating details of what we already knew took place and should never have? And we are committed to making sure it never happens again."
  • Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, warned that Democrats were putting the country's security at risk. "This is a terrible trend," he said. "This is high-risk stuff, because if we chill the ability or the willingness of our intelligence operatives and others to get information that's necessary to protect America, there could be disastrous consequences."
  • Former Cheney advisor Mary Matalin: "This is very suspect timing ... The president’s agenda is almost in shambles. His [poll] numbers are dropping. Isn't it coincidental; they gin up a Cheney story."


Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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