All credit is due to The Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Gorman, who provides the most thorough account so far of what the “significant actions” were that CIA Director Leon Panetta told the Congress about — and stopped — late last month. To make a long story short: the effort was apparently an on-again-off-again attempt to create an assassinations capability to go after al-Qaeda, following a post-9/11 presidential finding from George W. Bush. The scope and contours of the effort are unknown, but it reportedly never went beyond the stages of spending “money on planning and possibly some training.” Whether that actually was the case will probably be the subject of upcoming congressional hearings.
Here’s a description of the program, as Gorman reports it:
Some officials who advocated the approach were seeking to build teams of CIA and military Special Forces commandos to emulate what the Israelis did after the Munich Olympics terrorist attacks, said another former intelligence official.
“It was straight out of the movies,” one of the former intelligence officials said. “It was like: Let’s kill them all.”
Two things. First, we’ve known for years that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld endeavored to move Special Forces in the direction of traditional CIA covert operations. In 2005, the Pentagon acknowledged creating so-called “Strategic Support Teams” of military and civilian personnel for unspecified and hairy operations. I’d check out this briefing for a suggestion of what these things might have been, or might have tried to be:
Q: Have they been deployed anywhere besides Iraq and Afghanistan thus far?
SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well see, we really haven’t deployed teams as — you know, as described here as these Strategic Support Teams. Up until now, we have been deploying from the larger base of those capabilities and Defense HUMINT services, as I said earlier, sort of individual augmentations drawn broadly from our capabilities.
Whether this sort of thing is a cousin to the “significant actions” emerging here remains to be seen, but I wonder.
Second, this really ought to quiet all talk that Panetta was just trying to mend fences with congressional Democrats after the fracas with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over whether CIA lied to Congress about torture briefings. For about 30 years, the CIA has been barred from conducting assassinations. It makes all the sense in the world for Panetta to disclose to Congress a newly-discovered program to build up an assassinations capability. If he discovered the effort and *didn’t *tell Congress, it would be cause for the oversight committees to rake him over the coals, even if he scuttled the program.