The Post asked intelligence and defense experts about the politics and policies of the CIA’s assassination program. Below are contributions from Marc Thiessen, Silvestre Reyes, Jeffrey Smith, Mark Lowenthal, Kate Martin, Vicki Divoll and Lanny Davis.
Marc A. Thiessen, visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution; served in senior positions in the Pentagon and White House from 2001 to 2009, most recently as chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush.
For eight years, the CIA had a secret program to kill or capture al-Qaeda operatives. A few weeks ago, Congress was briefed on it — and now we are debating the details in op-eds and other media reports. If that is not proof that Congress cannot be trusted with highly classified information, I don’t know what is.
It speaks volumes that congressional Democrats think it is a scandal that the CIA was coming up with new ways to kill al-Qaeda terrorists — as does Leon Panetta’s wrongheaded decision to cancel this effort. Some commentators have referred to CIA “death squads” and questioned whether it is legal to “assassinate” terrorist leaders. Yet the Obama administration is reportedly “assassinating” terrorists all the time in Pakistan using Predator drones. Why is killing terrorists from 2,000 feet morally superior from doing so from two feet away?
The CIA should be leaning forward, taking risks and coming up with innovative ways to take out terrorists before they strike our country again. Unfortunately, the Democrats have declared war on the agency for taking such risks. The president has accused CIA officers of “torture.” The attorney general is talking about appointing a special prosecutor. The speaker of the House has accused the agency of lying to Congress, and now congressional Democrats are beating the war drums for new investigations.
Meanwhile, career CIA officials such as Philip Mudd have seen their nominations scuttled and careers ruined by Washington witch-hunts. And we expect these people to take risks to protect us? Ingratitude in Washington has consequences. Beating up on the CIA will make the agency increasingly risk-averse — and that increases the risk of another attack.
REP. Silvestre Reyes (D-TEX.) Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Regardless of the specific programmatic details of CIA Director Leon Panetta’s recent disclosures to Congress, my view of their legality would be essentially the same: I support counterterrorism methods that have the potential to disrupt terrorist attacks as long as they are legal and have been appropriately reported as the law requires.
I want our intelligence officers to have a broad and powerful array of capabilities for preventing terrorist attacks. All I ask is that those capabilities are consistent with our laws and obligations. Have they been disclosed to the relevant Justice Department officials to determine their legality? Have they been disclosed to the relevant congressional oversight committees? Were they authorized by the president?
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence investigation will examine not only these important issues but also broader and longer-standing issues involving the way in which the executive branch discharges its obligations of disclosure to Congress. The program that has been in the news of late is just one symptom of a larger problem of incomplete, late or false information being provided to Congress. We intend to tackle this larger problem, with an eye toward better oversight and, consequently, a stronger intelligence community.
Jeffrey H. Smith, former general counsel of the CIA; partner at Arnold & Porter.
The CIA, under Leon Panetta, is operating aggressively and at its highest tempo against al-Qaeda. It is not credible, therefore, that he terminated the program that has been in the news of late because it violated the prohibition on assassinations. Rather, it is more likely that he terminated the program simply because it was in the planning phase and no longer made sense.
The use of lethal force against terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden is not assassination. The ban on assassination prohibits acts such as the attempt to kill Fidel Castro, not acts targeted against terrorists who are seeking to kill Americans.
For years presidents have authorized the use of lethal force against al-Qaeda leaders. Canceling this program doesn’t mean the CIA has been disarmed. Moreover, Congress has been repeatedly briefed on the CIA’s counterterrorism authorities, and both Panetta and the director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, have promised to brief them on future operations. So, what’s the fuss?
Congress is rightfully concerned when lawmakers have not been briefed about a program. But the reaction of some members appears to be an indirect effort to support House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s contention that the CIA lied to her earlier about waterboarding.
The CIA has made mistakes, but the agency should never be a political football. The nation needs to take a deep breath and let the investigations that are underway proceed in a deliberate and professional manner. The CIA works hard to not politicize intelligence analysis; Congress should work equally hard to not politicize oversight.
Mark Lowenthal, assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production from 2002 to 2005; staff director of the House intelligence committee, 1995-97.
The irony of the imbroglio over a CIA operational concept (it seems to have been less than an actual program) and briefing to Congress is that the CIA apparently went about this task methodically and deliberately. CIA leadership and officers recognized the daunting legal, logistic and operational issues involved in eliminating al-Qaeda leaders. Rather than bull ahead, they apparently did not put the concept into operation because important questions could not be answered.
Should Congress have been briefed? It is difficult to describe the concept as a “significant anticipated activity” as no activity was anticipated, ordered or in sight. There is also the broader question of whether intelligence oversight committees really want to be briefed on every nascent concept, regardless of its state of readiness. Under these terms, the number of briefings would escalate dramatically, leading to a blur of information and a declining ability on the part of Congress to tell the important programs from the dross. Moreover, it edges lawmakers closer to the line where they would be asked to give approval — tacit or explicit — for certain undertakings, something that Congress should not want and cannot carry out.
We have, most regrettably, entered an extremely partisan phase of intelligence oversight. It is difficult to avoid concluding that much of the angst expressed by Democratic members stems from a lingering defense of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her imperfect memory of what she was briefed on and when regarding the terrorist interrogation program. (Republican members also deserve some credit for refusing to let the Pelosi issue die.) Those of us who have worked under the current oversight system for the past 33 years cannot recall a more partisan, more dysfunctional era.
Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies.
It is no surprise that the Bush administration’s CIA had plans for secret assassinations around the world that it kept from Congress at the direction of Vice President Cheney. We have known for several years that in the name of a “global war on terror” that administration repeatedly violated the laws of war and worked in secret to usurp the constitutional separation of powers.
Since the revelations, some have asked why we would ban such assassinations when the Obama administration itself is using Predator drones to attack suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban members in the mountainous border regions of Afghanistan. But there is a war in Afghanistan that has been authorized and recognized by both Congress and the international community. And, as the U.S. military has long recognized, fighting a war is not a license to murder. The Bush administration’s claim that a “global war on terror” justified kidnappings and assassination of “suspected terrorists” anywhere in the world because they are “combatants” was lawless. The Obama administration is right to end the assassination program. Properly confining the extraordinary authorities to kill and capture individuals to theaters where U.S. forces are engaged in combat restores the rule of law, thereby strengthening the United States and making the entire world more secure.
Vicki Divoll, former deputy counsel to the CIA Counterterrorist Center from 1997 to 2000; general counsel of the Senate intelligence committee from 2001 to 2003.
In evaluating whether Leon Panetta was right to cancel the program, we should look at whether the decisions to order and end the program were done in the right way and by the right officials.
We still do not know the exact nature of the “assassination” plan: Was it ordered by President Bush? Did it involve killing U.S. citizens or killing people inside the United States? Were the congressional intelligence committees properly notified — at least in a broad covert action finding — of plans to target and kill terrorists, with further notification of the operational details to come later? Would killings occur in sovereign nations without their knowledge and consent? Was the State Department consulted on the diplomatic ramifications of such a program?
As for the decision to end it, this is one for President Obama. A program ordered by a president, using his statutory and constitutional powers, should be ended by a president, not the CIA director. Presumably, Panetta consulted Obama.
Even though the program has been canceled, Democrats in Congress are exactly right to demand more information about the nature of this program: how it was formulated, whether it was legal and consistent with American values, and whether Congress was properly informed. The Framers contemplated that our elected representatives — the president and Congress together — would have to make many policy choices for us, because the best chance of making more good decisions than bad is to follow a process that is balanced and coherent.
Lanny J. Davis, special counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 1998.
The CIA assassination program should be continued under congressionally authorized legislation that makes it legal for the CIA, under military supervision, to kill identified members of al-Qaeda.
Note the words “congressionally authorized” — that means it needs to be lawful. (I know that the concept of laws enacted by the legislative branch with which the executive branch must comply may shock former vice president Dick Cheney and his acolytes.) Note “military supervision.” I believe the CIA is a great institution that this country needs to strengthen. We should not allow it to remain in the cross-fire of political scapegoating. But the CIA needs — and, indeed, should want — its assassination program to be supervised by the only institution in our democratic system of government with the legal authority and experience to kill people (other than capital offense executions).
Do I have a moral problem with a program in which we find and kill — legally and under strict supervision — identified and proven members of al-Qaeda, whose sworn purpose is to commit terrorism, meaning murdering innocent people?
Let me think about it for a second.