Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Attorney General Eric Holder speaking at the Washington Lawyers' Committee For Civil Rights and Urban Affairs Annual Branton Awards luncheon gathering in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2009.

CIA Assassination Plan Reflects Agency’s Controversial Role

July 13, 2009 06:30 PM
by Liz Colville
Attorney General Eric Holder is considering an investigation into a Bush administration antiterrorism operation that would focus on whether the CIA withheld information from Congress.

Issue Forces Administration to Look Back

The “prospect of torture investigations seemed to lose momentum in April,” Newsweek’s Daniel Klaidman writes, but in June, Holder “asked an aide for a copy of the CIA inspector general's thick classified report on interrogation abuses” and went over the documents first “as a lawyer,” then “at a more emotional level.” He was “shocked and saddened” by what he read, a friend told Newsweek.

Holder's attention may now return to the activities of the previous administration as on July 11, it was revealed by sources including The Wall Street Journal that current CIA Director Leon Panetta recently terminated a CIA operation that aimed “to carry out a 2001 presidential authorization to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives,” The Journal’s Siobhan Gorman reported, citing intelligence officials. In 2001 “the CIA also examined the subject of targeted assassinations of al Qaeda leaders,” but it is not clear whether these activities are related to the operation Panetta terminated.

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The issue rests on the fact that the CIA plan “hadn’t been properly vetted with Congress,” The Journal adds, citing Panetta, and is “part of a long-running tug of war between the executive branch and the legislature about how to oversee the activities of the country's intelligence services,” as well as “how extensively the CIA should brief Congress.”

The House Intelligence Committee released a letter last week that discussed the CIA operation. CIA officials informed Panetta about the operation and “recommended he inform Congress,” according to The Wall Street Journal. The letter, from seven Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, “asked [Panetta] to publicly admit that his agency had deceived Congress for several years,” U.S. News and World Report’s Queenie Wong writes.

But Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, including Mich. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, have described the CIA plan as nebulous—more of an “idea,” as Hoekstra put it to The Journal, than an actual plan, adding that only about $1 million had been spent on it.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California and the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told “Fox News Sunday” that according to Panetta, former Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the plan be kept secret from Congress, The New York Times reported. If true, “that’s something that should never, ever happen again,” Feinstein said. It could indicate that the Bush administration broke a law first passed by President Gerald Ford that bans assassinations of foreign leaders, according to The Journal.

Background: Creation and regulation of the CIA

Two key pieces of legislation set the terms for the relationship between the CIA and Congress. Salon’s Alex Koppelman explains on the blog War Room that “[w]hile the National Security Act of 1947 allows some room for situational judgment on intelligence disclosures to Congress, it requires that congressional intelligence committees are kept fully abreast of the U.S.'s intelligence activities—even those that are in the planning stages.”

It wasn’t until the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949 that the CIA was given “the authorities typically given to other federal government agencies,” Jennifer S. Byram of explains. The latter act was heavily debated, particularly its “secrecy provisions” regarding the spending, employees and activities of the agency.

Subsequent amendments to the CIA Act have addressed some of these qualms, Byram adds, in effect “increas[ing] congressional oversight” of the CIA. Notably, the office of the Inspector General was created in 1988 and the office of the General Counsel was created in 1996.

Byram notes that “It is difficult to determine the exact impact the CIA Act has had on the United States because so many of the CIA's activities are not publicized. … We seldom hear about its failures, unless they are spectacular, like the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, or the Iran-Contra scandal.”

Reference: Two key moments in CIA history

The Bay of Pigs invasion was a plan hatched by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon and CIA Director Allen Dulles. It was put into action under President John F. Kennedy, who retained Dulles as director until after the invasion. When the invasion failed, Kennedy “began to distrust” the CIA and “remained wary of the intelligence services,” American Heritage explains in a detailed look at the Bay of Pigs incident.

During the Iran-Contra affair, Congress imposed a spending cap of $24 million on the CIA’s funding of the contras, a group of Nicaraguan antigovernment insurgents whom President Ronald Reagan wanted to support in the belief that their movement could help quash “Communist subversion in Central America,” explains. Instead of acting within that spending cap, the CIA transferred the project to the National Security Council, “where clandestine efforts on behalf of the contras were coordinated by an NSC staff member, Lieut. Col. Oliver North.”

At the same time, the U.S. was secretly selling arms to Iran under the assumption that Iran would help negotiate the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon. But this did not happen, and the two activities became linked when it was revealed that money from the arms sales was being used to fund the contras. It was later revealed in a Congressional investigation that at the time, President Reagan had had no knowledge of the events.

Related Topic: Ban on assassination of foreign leaders

Three executive orders, the first by President Ford in 1976, followed by orders from President Carter and President Reagan, prohibit the assassination of foreign leaders by the U.S. government, according to a report by the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service, available via the Law Blog of The Wall Street Journal. Reagan’s E.O. 12333 is still in effect. But the CRS report notes that the order can be interpreted widely due to the lack of definition of the word “assassination” in all three orders, as well as the presidents’ lack of explicit reference to the assassination ban in the statements accompanying their orders.

The report also mentions Public Law 107-40, which was passed on Sept. 18, 2001, following joint resolutions in the House and Senate. That law “might be viewed as sufficient, insofar as U.S. responses to the events of September 11, 2001 are concerned, to encompass actions that might otherwise be prohibited under the assassination ban,” according to the report.

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