The secret is out. Since the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the CIA has been developing covert plans to assassinate Osama bin Laden and other high-level al-Qaeda leaders.
If this news does not trouble you, you are probably not a Congressional Democrat. For the past several months, the Democratic leadership has waged a public-relations insurgency against the CIA, incited by Nancy Pelosi’s sensational charge that the agency has been misleading Congress “all the time.”
Pelosi, of course, has a personal vendetta against the agency. This May, she came in for bipartisan scorn when the CIA released records showing that she had been informed about its use of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques on several terrorist detainees, thereby shattering Pelosi’s repeated insistence that she had no knowledge of the interrogation methods she had opportunistically decried as “torture.” In a further embarrassment to the House Speaker, CIA Director Leon Panetta, a fellow California Democrat, was moved to issue a statement affirming that it was not the agency’s practice to mislead Congress. Pelosi’s shrinking credibility on national security matters temporarily muted the attacks on the CIA. But that changed on June 24, when Panetta acknowledged the existence of the covert assassination program and announced that it had been terminated.
On cue, Democrats went on the offensive. The secret CIA program was now held up as proof that the CIA was misleading Congress, and several House Democrats even wrote Panetta demanding that he “correct” his previous statement to the contrary. Not only did Democrats claim vindication about the supposed duplicity of CIA, but they found another excuse to condemn the Bush administration, by suggesting that it was Vice President Cheney who authorized the assassination program and purposely kept it secret from the Congress. Underlying it all was the familiar Democratic refrain that the United States had once again sacrificed the moral high ground in the war on terror.
Little has so far emerged about the CIA program, but what is known casts serious doubt on each of the Democrats’ claims. First and foremost, the now-scrapped CIA program had nothing at all to do with the conduct of interrogations or detainee treatment, the two points on which Pelosi, misleadingly, claimed to have been misled. Instead, it was designed to place specially trained CIA “hit teams” abroad to assassinate al-Qaeda members. As one unnamed intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal, the idea was to put together a team of CIA and special-operations forces who would “put bullets in [the] heads” of al-Qaeda leaders.
Opposing the carefully planned killing of al-Qaeda terrorists is hardly a winning platform in American politics, so Democrats complain instead that they were not told about the assassination program. It’s not clear, however, what there was to tell. By all accounts the program was always in the planning stages, and was never close to being operational. That was still true when Panetta cancelled the program last month – eight years after President Bush had authorized the agency to look into ways to kill and capture al-Qaeda leaders.
It’s worth noting that just because Congress had not been briefed about the program does not mean that it would always remain in the dark. CIA officers were instructed to inform Congress in the event that they planned to carry out targeted assassinations. The chances of that happening were unlikely, however, since the program reportedly was supported by neither President Bush nor Vice President Cheney – the mastermind, in the Democrats’ telling, of this alleged conspiracy to deceive Congress and exceed executive authority.
Yet the fact that the assassination program was never carried out does not mean that it is indefensible. Although secret, it was not illegal. Assassination “hit teams” had been authorized under President Bush’s 2001 order to find ways to kill al-Qaeda terrorists. It is true that the United States has outlawed assassinations since 1976, when President Gerald Ford banned the practice through an executive order. But while the assassination ban holds for political leaders, it does not apply to enemies of war like al-Qaeda, since it’s hard to draw a distinction between assassination and killing a declared enemy of the United States on the battlefield.
That was not only the Bush administration’s view. It is also the Obama administration’s position. Thus, in Pakistan, the administration has continued the Bush-era policy of using unmanned aerial drones to take out al-Qaeda operatives with missile strikes – an assassination policy in all but name.
Designed on stable legal footing, the CIA assassination program was also strategically sound. While drone strikes have proven effective in killing Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Pakistan’s tribal territories, they come with serious drawbacks, including collateral damage and the alienation of civilian populations. At least part of the thinking behind the current U.S.-led anti-Taliban offensive in Afghanistan’s Helmand province is the idea that a strictly hands-off approach to counterterrorism – of which drones are a key component – is inadequate to winning the broader war in South Asia. The CIA’s program would at least have offered an alternative, and it’s not surprising that some Republicans have called for it to be revived in altered form.
All in all, then, the latest CIA “scandal” looks to be another manufactured controversy by Congressional Democrats. So far from abusing its authority by planning assassinations, the CIA was doing its job by exploring possible ways to kill terrorists before they have a chance to attack. Amid all the talk of “secrecy,” the most conspicuous revelation to emerge in recent days has been the news that Democrats would rather throw a partisan tantrum against the CIA and the Bush administration than prosecute the war on terror. But that, of course, wasn’t much of a secret.