There are a number of issues to unpack from the news that the CIA had secret plans for assassination teams that it hadn’t divulged to Congress.
First and foremost, for the time being, it’s not yet clear (to me, anyway) just how operational-but-undisclosed the programs in question* became. Not only did Panetta cancel a secret allegedly-not-yet-ever-used program, but he also felt he ought to report the issue to Congress — perhaps out of an abundance of caution, perhaps in close adherence to statutory requirements … or perhaps for other motives. All I can find so far about his precise June 24 testimony to Congress is in a June 26 letter by House Intelligence Committee members and others stating that
“Recently you testified that you have determined that top CIA officials have concealed significant actions from all Members of Congress, and misled Members for a number of years from 2001 to this week.”
Despite the word “actions” in that letter, a New York Times report by Mazzetti and Shane states that the plans “remained vague and were never carried out.” On the other hand, they were apparently specific enough that Panetta actually had something to “cancel” or “scuttle” — as one might indeed expect with something under discussion since 2001. According to the L.A. Times,
“…as recently as a year ago CIA executives discussed plans to deploy teams to test basic capabilities, including whether they could enter hostile territory and maneuver undetected, as well as gather intelligence and track high-value targets.”
So this wasn’t just idle talk around the water cooler; time and money had been spent thinking about it — and it’s hard to believe you’d just “test” tracking “high value targets.”
Given 9/11 and the ensuing authorization of military force by Congress, what would be wrong with hit squads focused (presumably) on Al Qaeda leadership? I imagine I’ll be learning more about U.S. law in this regard — and of course definitive law should govern Panetta’s actions and congressional response. But rather than lying low until then, I want to try to lay out the issues as I see them now. I hesitate to do so, because the issue arguably exposes a bit of a seam in my own thinking; I hope everyone will feel free to comment on and disagree with any of the following.
Simply wrong, simply unsupervised, or both?
The broadest concern — one I once was unwilling to entertain at all — is that it’s violence, it’s extrajudicial, and it’s simply wrong. I suppose I still disagree with this, though it’s a much closer call for me than it once was. With an accountable chain of decision-making, command and oversight, this is a military option in a war. We killed Yamamoto in World War II because he was in charge of trying to kill us, and because we saw a way to do it. This seems similar: the United States was attacked, and Congress authorized “all necessary and appropriate force” against the attackers.
To me, intentional avoidance of legitimate oversight — if that is what happened — is the more troubling issue: that invites eventual errors and worse, it invites and signals abuse. Adopting a term from the “Bourne” movie series, I’ll call this the “Treadstone” scenario — a secret program conducting unsupervised attacks on all kinds of targets, risking or committing errors in judgment about the necessity of such attacks, the possibility of freelancing for personal gain. Who would object? No one would even know.
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