The CIA had a secret plan to capture or kill al-Qaeda operatives, but it was terminated by new CIA Director Leon Panetta, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) said late on Sunday. Citing unnamed former intelligence officials familiar with the matter, the newspaper said the precise nature of the highly classified effort remained unclear, and the CIA would not comment on its substance.
Current and former government officials said the agency spent money on planning and possibly some training of its operatives for the mission, the report said.
It was acting on a 2001 presidential legal finding, which authorized the CIA to pursue such efforts. But the initiative had not become fully operational at the time Panetta ended it.
Citing three unnamed former intelligence officials, the WSJ said that in 2001, the CIA also examined the subject of targeted assassinations of al-Qaeda leaders. But those discussions tapered off within six months. Neither Panetta nor members of Congress provided details, said the Journal, adding that he quashed the CIA effort after learning about it on June 23.
Meanwhile, Representative Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said little money had been spent on the project — closer to US$1 million than US$50 million.
“The idea for this kind of program was tossed around in fits and starts,” the WSJ quoted Hoekstra as saying.
The New York Times reported on its Web site on Saturday that former US vice president Dick Cheney had ordered the CIA to withhold information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress for eight years.
Panetta, who ended the program when he learned of its existence, revealed Cheney’s role in a closed briefing to the Senate and House intelligence committees, the paper said, without specifying the nature of the program.
Panetta told members of Congress that Cheney ordered the agency not to share details of the program with legislators, Senate Intelligence Committee head Dianne Feinstein said.
“I think if the intelligence committees had been briefed, they could have watched the program, they could have asked for reports on the program, they could have made judgments about the program as it went along,” Feinstein said on Fox News Sunday.
“That was not the case, because we were kept in the dark. That is something that should never happen again,” she said, describing the move as “outside the law.”
Democratic Senator Kent Conrad, appearing on CNN, described the alleged failure to notify Congress about the program was “a serious breach” of the law.
Representative Anna Eshoo, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, said she would call for the panel to hire an outside counsel to investigate the issue.
“We have to know who gave the order for this, who gave the order to conceal this, where did they draw the money for this,” Eshoo told the Washington Post.
Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate’s powerful judiciary committee, also said he would favor an investigation.
“I think it’s impossible to just leave it lay when you have something like this,” Leahy told CBS television.
An unnamed intelligence official told the Washington Post that the highly secretive program was in the planning stages and never crossed the agency’s threshold for reporting to congressional overseers.
Two former agency officials told the newspaper that it involved proposals to provide US intelligence agencies with a “needed capability” — without explaining what that meant.