Barely six months old, the Obama administration faces a political problem caused by how the CIA handled a secret counter-terrorism program. Though President Obama has insisted he wants to look forward and push an ambitious domestic agenda, a series of intelligence-related issues has the administration and Congress looking back at the George W. Bush years. Here is a primer of what we know.
What is going on?
CIA Director Leon E. Panetta briefed congressional committees last month about a program to put elite paramilitary teams into areas such as Pakistan where they could kill or capture top Al Qaeda operatives. The program was kept secret from Congress for more than seven years at the request of former Vice President Dick Cheney, according to members of Congress and former intelligence officials. The program was never operational and even seems to have been dormant at various points. When word of the program's existence recently surfaced, Panetta canceled it and told Congress.
The CIA has been reluctant to publicly discuss the operation, but a spokesman has given a glimpse:
"The program [Panetta] killed was never fully operational and never took a single terrorist off the battlefield," said George Little, a CIA spokesman. "We've had a string of successes against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and that program didn't contribute to any of them."
If the program is dead, what is the problem?
There are two areas of concern, legal and political.
What are the legal issues?
President Ford in 1976 banned the CIA from carrying out assassinations. The order came after revelations that the CIA tried and failed to assassinate leaders such as Fidel Castro during the late 1960s. Based on that, there are questions that any CIA assassination program is legal. Some say that killing U.S. foes, such as enemy combatants, is not illegal.
The second problem is that the agency kept the program secret from Congress, which oversees the agency's activities, and did so at the request of Cheney.
Did the CIA violate the law?
Defenders of the CIA say no, while some Democratic lawmakers say yes.
The canceled program was authorized by a 2001 presidential finding, say the agency's defenders, who note the frenzied atmosphere in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Bush administration made no secret of its eagerness to find Al Qaeda leaders and publicly said the United States would not rest until top leaders were caught or killed. The war on terrorism, which weakened civil rights in general, is also used to explain the CIA program.
That the CIA program failed to reach operational status is also used by defenders to justify that Congress was not told.
But that argument has failed to mollify some prominent Democrats such as Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, a member of the Intelligence Committee. He has said the agency broke the law by not telling congressional overseers. Democrats in the House of Representatives say they want to see documents related to the program and the decision. The House Intelligence Committee announced today that it will investigate whether any was law broken by not telling Congress.
What are the political issues?
The latest disclosure comes at a time of increased anger by Democrats at the Bush administration over the CIA specifically, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in general and the use of torture against detainees as part of the war on terrorism. Cheney, identified as an architect of those policies, has been a special target for liberals and civil libertarians.
Those are separate issues but together they have shaped the debate in Congress as it presses for more information on intelligence issues.
What other CIA-related issues are there?
Bush-era intelligence issues trip up Obama
The House Intelligence Committee announced today that it will investigate whether a secret CIA counter-terrorism program existent during the Bush years broke the law.
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