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The CIA Is Keeping Secrets. Hello?

5 minute read
Robert Baer

On June 24, CIA Director Leon Panetta made a confession. For the past eight years, the agency has been running a top-secret unit to assassinate or grab members of al-Qaeda. The program was deliberately kept from Congress–supposedly on former Vice President Dick Cheney’s orders–and Panetta stopped it as soon as he heard about it.

Sounds alarming. But like many of these stories, there’s less to it than meets the eye. The unit conducted no assassinations or grabs. A former CIA officer involved in the program told me that no targets were picked, no weapons issued and no one sent overseas to carry out anything. “It was little more than a PowerPoint presentation,” he said. “Why would we tell Congress?”

That’s a good question, especially since the program was an open secret. On Oct. 28, 2001, the Washington Post ran an article with the title “CIA Weighs ‘Targeted Killing’ Missions.” And in 2006, New York Times reporter James Risen wrote a book in which he revealed the program’s secret code name, Box Top . Moreover, it is well known that on Nov. 3, 2002, the CIA launched a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone over Yemen, killing an al-Qaeda member involved in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. And who knows how many “targeted killings” there have been in Afghanistan and Iraq?

So why all the fuss? Very likely because of that word assassination. I found out the weight of the term in Washington when I was still in the CIA. In the spring of 1995 I was in charge of a small unit in northern Iraq. It was a time when it appeared that with only a little push, Saddam Hussein would fall. There were plans for a military coup, which were quickly twisted into rumors of a plan to assassinate Saddam. The Clinton White House picked up the assassination part and called the CIA to check. My team and I were pulled back to Washington. The FBI investigated, decided no one had planned to assassinate anyone, and dropped the matter. Eventually the Department of Justice sent a letter to the CIA “declining” to prosecute us for attempted murder.

The White House never told the CIA why it panicked, at least as far as I know. But I do know that the Administration was living with the collective memory of the Church Committee hearings. In the mid-1970s, a Senate committee chaired by Frank Church hammered the CIA for its attempted assassinations of foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro. During the worst of it, the CIA wondered if it would survive. It did. But it was saddled with an order prohibiting assassination, and in 1981 Ronald Reagan amended it as Executive Order 12333. In the CIA, that was the closest thing we had to the Ten Commandments. So I can imagine the sensitivities in the Clinton White House when it heard rumors that the CIA was planning to assassinate Saddam. It did not want to face the furor that would follow a failed attempt to kill anyone.

Naturally, things changed after 9/11, when everyone wanted to know why the CIA couldn’t just assassinate Osama bin Laden. There’s little doubt that the Bush Administration asked CIA Director George Tenet to study that very question, even as a hypothetical–in other words, to do contingency planning.

No secret there; that’s what the CIA has done since it was founded in 1947. Every CIA operative deals in contingencies all the time, including assassination. In Lebanon once, I asked a source if he could grab a Hizballah terrorist. He said no, but he would be happy to kill him. I declined, knowing I didn’t have the authority, then filed the thought away in the event those circumstances ever changed. But I sure never considered informing Congress of the offer. If the CIA always raised a contingency like this with Congress, the agency would spend all its time on the Hill.

I think we’re going to find out that the CIA’s assassination program was dealing in pure hypotheticals, ones it intended to tell Congress about if they became real possibilities. (I won’t try to guess what Cheney would have done.) Yet however overblown the story, if a full-fledged investigation into it does occur, it could be the last nail in the CIA’s coffin. This Congress could succeed where the Church Committee failed. Even if things are not that dire–people are always talking about abolishing the CIA–it will undermine morale for years. Congress, no doubt, will explain in the coming months how a program that was no secret was somehow beyond the pale. But if this game is nothing more than political bickering, it is not worth the candle.

Baer is a former Middle East CIA field officer and TIME.com’s intelligence columnist

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