Six months into his new term as head of the CIA, director Leon Panetta received a briefing that must have made the veteran politician sit back in his chair. The United States of America had assassination teams trained and ready to go, a 2001 covert programme to kill or capture Al Qaeda leaders, a fighting force hidden from even the highest levels of Congress.
"A targeted killing programme," the media immediately called it, news of its existence dominating TV political shows, "hidden from all but a few in the Bush White House."
United States law requires the CIA to brief Congressional oversight committees on all its activities. House and Senate lawmakers with top security clearance are required to be in the know, this 'checks and balances' procedure being a most vital aspect of the American democratic system. So seriously is this responsibility taken--particularly when it involves violating another country's sovereignty, a supposed ally in the war on terror--that stiff penalties including many years of jail time can be levied by the House of Representatives and the Senate. And yet no one knew, not even a hint of the "assassination" programme being broached to senior legislators.
So how had this been allowed to happen; how and who had kept this assassination programme hidden from those the law demanded be advised? And even more important: had any assassinations actually taken place, and--if so--by whom and in which countries?
In early July as CIA Director Leon Panetta learned more, he made the decision not only to terminate this Bush administration programme but to also bring its existence to the attention of the relevant congressional oversight panels. Not only did Panetta tell the incensed lawmakers that they had been illegally kept in the dark by then CIA director George Tenet, but that he believed this was done in part as a result of Vice President Dick Cheney's direct initiative. A CIA spokesman followed this up a few days later with a public statement, which while not as explicit about the details, did acknowledge that Panetta had briefed the lawmakers on a programme he considered illegal, one he had been unaware of until well into his term of office.
As is the norm in Washington, details of the programme soon began to emerge, startling revelations dribbling out in late August, some six weeks after the initial bombshell had been dropped. And as is also the norm, the details being leaked proved even more eye-popping, if not...