WASHINGTON - - CIA officials were proposing to activate a plan to train anti-terrorist assassination teams overseas when agency managers brought the secret program to the attention of CIA Director Leon Panetta last month, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
The plan to kill top al-Qaida leaders, which had been on the agency's back burner for much of the past eight years, was thrust into the spotlight because of proposals to initiate what one intelligence official called a "somewhat more operational phase." Shortly after learning of the plan, Panetta terminated the program and then went to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers, who had been kept in the dark since 2001.
The Obama administration's top intelligence official, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, defended Wednesday Panetta's decision to cancel the program, which he said had raised questions among intelligence officials about its "effectiveness, maturity and the level of control."
But Blair differed with some Democrats by asserting that the CIA did not violate the law when it failed to inform Congress about the secret program. Blair said agency officials might not have been required to notify Congress about the program, though he believes they should have done so.
"It was a judgment call," Blair said.
Democratic lawmakers have accused the CIA of deliberately misleading Congress by failing to disclose the program's existence until the June 24 briefing by Panetta. House Democrats, citing an account given by Panetta, say then-Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the CIA not to tell Congress about the initiative, which involved plans to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders using small teams of assassins.
This week, congressional Democrats formally requested documents about the program, and some have called for an investigation into whether the CIA improperly withheld information from oversight committees. Sen. Russell Feingold, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, was among several prominent Democrats who have accused the CIA of violating the law.
Republicans say the allegations of CIA wrongdoing are false and harmful, and some accused Democrats of raising the issue to deflect attention from recent controversies surrounding House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was criticized after accusing the agency of lying to Congress about its use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques.
The plan to deploy small teams of assassins grew out of the CIA's efforts to battle al-Qaida after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A secret document known as a "presidential finding" was signed by then-President George W. Bush that month, granting the agency broad authority to use deadly force against bin Laden and other senior members of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
The CIA declined to reveal specifics of the program, but spokesman George Little said it was "never fully operational and never took a single terrorist off the battlefield."