CIA Story Roundup

A look at the national papers' coverage of secret CIA hit squad story

After a few days of reporters digging into the details of a controversial CIA program, and one big scoop about the program’s contents, some people in Washington apparently decided to start talking. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times all weigh in today with stories that point to a similar conclusion: the program was designed to assassinate top al Qaeda officials, was never implemented, and was killed by last month by new CIA chief Leon Panetta. Panetta also informed Congress for the first time of the program’s existence, and Democrats there blew a gasket about not being informed earlier—the event that precipitated the press inquiries that led to today’s stories.

The stories—which cite as sources “current and former government officials,” “U.S. intelligence and congressional officials,” “current and former national-security officials” and “former U.S. intelligence officials”—second yesterday’s scoop by Journal reporter Siobhan Gorman, who broke the news that the program was designed to “capture or kill” al Qaeda operatives. And while they are mostly rooted in anonymous sources, the stories all get on-the-record comments—in most cases, from Sen. Christoper “Kit” Bond, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee—that serve as confirmation.

The stories all take slightly different angles, and thus have different strengths. The NYT offers the fullest treatment of the legal issues surrounding assassinations of terrorists, the Post weighs in with the nugget that the White House wasn’t involved in Panetta’s decision to cancel the program, the Journal situates the news in the context of an ongoing debate about congressional oversight of intelligence activity, and the LAT features the closest look at talks within the CIA, along with a case that former vice president Dick Cheney’s connection to the program have been overstated.

But despite the varying perspectives, the full details of the program aren’t yet public. And there are enough inconsistencies in what has been reported so far to suggest that there may be more to the story.

The biggest question may simply be: Is this all there is? As several commenters have noted, it should be a surprise to no one that the U.S. government was seeking ways to kill specific al Qaeda leaders. Bond, the Republican, tells the Post that “If the CIA weren’t trying to do something like this, we’d be asking, ‘Why not?’” Most Democrats, for their part, seem less aggrieved about the program’s contents than about they fact that they were kept in the dark. As today’s stories all note, the U.S. uses Predator drones to target individuals, an act that doesn’t seem legally distinct from an on-the-ground assassination. And the LA Times’s sources tell that paper “Panetta may have been more concerned about the fact that the initiative had been kept secret from Congress than he was about the merits of the program.”

It’s hard to square those points, though, with a few details that emerged earlier. For example, a Sunday New York Times story that focused on Cheney’s role in concealing the program noted that “there was no resistance inside the C.I.A.” when Panetta decided to end the effort. That story also flagged comments from Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, who said he believed the program only would have been approved in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Both of those data points suggest there may be more going on here.

Yesterday, the Guardian carried a story—not referenced in any of today’s articles in the American press—that may point toward an answer to this question. The program was designed to target al Qaeda operatives “in friendly countries without the knowledge of their governments,” according to reporter Chris McGreal. But much hinges on the definition of a “friendly country” there. That’s a term that could technically apply to Pakistan, which gets named in the LAT’s lede today, and which is an obvious place to go hunting for terrorists.

A few voices on the Web are floating other possibilities—that the program could’ve had a domestic component, or otherwise targeted Americans. There’s no real substantiation for that speculation yet, and it may prove unfounded—indeed, it’s quite possible that Congress’s response is not proportional to the size of the revelation. In either case, major papers should keep pushing hard on this story. Hopefully, we’ll learn more details soon.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.