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How Far Did CIA Assassination Plans Go?

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
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.

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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