If we are to believe U.S. intelligence officials that a plan to train assassination teams to strike Al-Qaeda leaders overseas including allied countries — a plan rejected for the most part and never operational — then I say more power to them. Keep in mind these plans work terrific in movies and Tom Clancy novels but rarely in the real world.
The wrinkle is Central Intelligence Agency officials never briefed Congressional leaders at the direction of Vice President Dick Cheney, another allegation we are told to believe. As a result, we have a political see-saw battle that impugns the integrity of our intelligence operators who have enough problems of their own.
In my mind, the law is clear that the Gang of 8, Congress’ intelligence committee chairpersons, are to be briefed with the classified activities both operational and in the planning stages. It is one of those Washington turf wars passionately protected by Congress and considered a necessary evil for every executive branch since the law was enacted. But the game is played on an uneven field: Briefers brief only what they want and Congressional leaders cannot take notes and are sworn to secrecy, meaning they are limited to do anything about the programs whether they approve or not. I could be wrong but revealing classified material is a crime but there are no sanctions for failing to brief Congress on the part of the executive branch. As it so happens in many of these cases, perjury and obstruction of justice convictions are the penalties — and not the original crime being pursued — should investigations by the Attorney General or special prosecutor take place. Just ask I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
The on-going current turf battle is unusual because the vice president who has only two constitutional powers — president of the Senate and succeeding the president — is said to have suggested the gag order. It is unknown whether Cheney was delegated that authority by President Bush and even that may have exceeded the president’s authority.
It is further compounded politically because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has accused intelligence officials of failing to brief her if not other committee chairpersons about the CIA’s enhanced interrogation methods that included waterboarding which the Obama administration’s attorney general considers torture. I have always wondered if the CIA did brief Congress on enhanced interrogation methods, why didn’t any Democrat cry foul during the Bush administration. Instead, we have the Pelosi flap seven years after the fact that they didn’t.
If that’s not enough, the scenario really gets screwy as the Democrats consider an amendment to the disclosure law that would extend briefing privileges to all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees. It becomes hilarious that Karl Rove — who leaked classified information to reporters in the Valerie Plame case — says that would open the door for even more sensitive activities being leaked by Congress. Obama has vowed to veto such legislation, according to some unattributed reports I have seen.
There is nothing more than liberal and civil liberties Democrats would love to do is to nail Cheney and Bush for their alleged misdeeds. I would support an inquiry if for no other reason than to get Cheney and Bush under oath in what probably amount to no more than a witch hunt. But, at least, it would clear the record. At the same time, it would be disastrous to set a merry-go-round in motion for one administration to prosecute a previous one simply because they disagree on policies, a charge we have heard from Republican apologists.
Meanwhile, the plan to kill top al-Qaeda leaders, which had been on the CIA’s back burner for much of the past eight years, was thrust into the spotlight because of proposals to initiate what one intelligence official called a “somewhat more operational phase.” Shortly after learning of the plan, CIA director Leon Panetta terminated the program and then went to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers, who had been kept in the dark since 2001.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair defended Panetta’s decision to cancel the program, which he said had raised serious questions among intelligence officials about its “effectiveness, maturity and the level of control.”
He said that the CIA did not violate the law when it failed to inform lawmakers about the secret program until last month. Blair said agency officials may not have been required to notify Congress about the program, though he believes they should have done so. “It was a judgment call,” Blair said. According to The Washington Post:
The program was active in fits and starts, and it was essentially killed in 2004 because it was deemed ineffective, former and current intelligence officials said. It reemerged briefly in 2005 but remained largely dormant until this year. Two U.S. officials with detailed knowledge of current CIA operations said the agency presented Panetta last month with new plans for moving forward with training for potential members of the assassination teams — activities that would have involved “crossing international boundaries,” in the words of a former counterterrorism official briefed on the matter.
There were also reports the assassination plans were taken over by the Pentagon under former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. What happened there also is unclear. What is unsettling is that if the plans never became anywhere near operational, why would the CIA spend at least $1 million on them, a disclosure made by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich.
That’s the trouble discussing covert operations under the umbrella of our 16 intelligence agencies. Someone who perceives a wrong or has a political ax to grind leaks it to the media. We seldom learn all the facts which we probably shouldn’t because of national security reasons. So we constantly bicker over a loaf of bread when only several slices are agreed upon as facts.
That’s why I believe the clandestine program to kill Al-Qaeda leaders is no more than a turf war between Congress and the executive office. That is not to be confused with the torture issue which defines our nation’s moral integrity.
Jerry Remmers worked 26 years in the newspaper business. His last 23 years was with the Evening Tribune in San Diego where assignments included reporter, assistant city editor, county and politics editor.