Last weekend, the New York Times reported that after 9/11, the CIA developed a "secret counterterrorism program" to train hit squads to kill top al-Qaida leaders. It seemed like good news to me. After all, why bankroll an intelligence agency if you can't use it to kill an enemy against whom America has declared war?
The news hooks: CIA director Leon Panetta killed the program last month after he told Senate and House Intelligence committees about the program.
And: Congress allegedly did not know about the nonoperational operation because, according to unnamed sources, former Veep Dick Cheney told the agency not to disclose the program to Congress.
The part of the story that undermined the story: The covert program "never became fully operational, involving planning and some training that took place off and on from 2001 until this year."
In plain English that means: Nothing happened there never were any Jason Bournes and no one informed the intelligence committees about it.
Subsequent stories elsewhere reported that the program never got off the ground. CIA Director George Tenet killed the program in 2004. Tenet's successor, Porter Goss, revived the program, but it never became operational, even when Michael Hayden, and later Panetta, took over as CIA chief.
Some unnamed sources say Cheney told the CIA not to tell Congress about the nonoperational operation; other sources claimed Cheney was not involved. Cheney isn't talking. My guess: If Cheney told the CIA to cork it, someone at the CIA's Langley headquarters would have leaked the whole story years ago. After all, the Bush years were replete with unnamed sources leaking classified intelligence on Iraq, wiretapping and efforts to squeeze al-Qaida's finances.
It turns out the New York Times reported "a list of terrorist leaders the Central Intelligence Agency is authorized to kill" on Dec. 15, 2002.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Democrat, has argued there should be an investigation of the CIA's failure to disclose. He told ABC's "This Week," "To have a massive program that is concealed from the leaders in Congress is not only inappropriate, it could be illegal." But the National Security Act requires the CIA to "keep the congressional intelligence committees fully and currently informed of all covert actions" not necessarily brainstorming.
The Associated Press reported last week that the House Intelligence Committee is laying the groundwork for a formal investigation. If so, the committee might start by probing how it is that Intelligence Committee members didn't know about a plan that had been reported on the front page of the New York Times.
"The administration must notify Congressional leaders of any covert action finding signed by the president," the 2002 story reported. "In the case of the presidential finding authorizing the use of lethal force against members of al Qaeda, Congressional leaders have been notified as required, the officials said."
True, the New York Times did not stipulate that terrorists on the "secret list" might be dispatched by a bullet instead by a drone-launched missile. The story did mention that the CIA used a drone to kill an al-Qaida leader in Yemen.
One might recall that in 2002, even D.C. Democrats wanted to get Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants more than they wanted to get Dick Cheney.
The worst part of this story is that it suggests that the CIA is run by a bunch of half-cocked cowboys looking for a direction in which to point their guns while the very point of the hit squads was to kill the bad guys without killing innocent bystanders. And, I would add, to do so at great bodily risk to CIA agents.
No doubt, CIA brass in the end decided that the risks and diplomatic fallout of an agent getting caught either by the enemy or the press were too great.
Such are the sensibilities in Washington that, collateral damage notwithstanding, it is politically safer to bomb terrorists than to shoot them.
While Democrats demanding an investigation might have set out to mess with Cheney, the only clear casualty to date is one of their own: Panetta.
He rushed to disclose the nonoperational covert operation to Intelligence Committee members, and unnamed sources rewarded his candor by leaking the story. He shut down a program that, if never implemented, makes complete sense in time of war. Add it all together and Panetta got rolled.
The message to agency staff may be unintended, but it is clear: If there's anyone left at CIA headquarters who wants to defeat al-Qaida, that person would be well advised to hire a lawyer first. Or maybe a shrink.