By MARK MAZZETTI and SCOTT SHANE Published: July 13, 2009
WASHINGTON — Since 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency has developed plans to dispatch small teams overseas to kill senior Qaeda terrorists, according to current and former government officials.
The plans remained vague and were never carried out, the officials said, and Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, canceled the program last month.
Officials at the spy agency over the years ran into myriad logistical, legal and diplomatic obstacles. How could the role of the United States be masked? Should allies be informed and might they block the access of the C.I.A. teams to their targets? What if American officers or their foreign surrogates were caught in the midst of an operation? Would such activities violate international law or American restrictions on assassinations overseas?
Yet year after year, according to officials briefed on the program, the plans were never completely shelved because the Bush administration sought an alternative to killing terror suspects with missiles fired from drone aircraft or seizing them overseas and imprisoning them in secret C.I.A. jails.
Mr. Panetta scuttled the program, which would have relied on paramilitary teams, shortly after the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center recently informed him of its existence. The next day, June 24, he told the two Congressional Intelligence Committees that the plan had been hidden from lawmakers, initially at the instruction of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
The program was designed in the frantic weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks when President George W. Bush signed a secret order authorizing the C.I.A. to capture or kill operatives of Al Qaeda around the world. To be able to kill Osama bin Laden or his top deputies wherever they might be — even in cities or countries far from a war zone — struck top agency officials as an urgent goal, according to people involved in the discussions.
But in practice, creating and training the teams proved difficult.
“It sounds great in the movies, but when you try to do it, it’s not that easy,” a former intelligence official said. “Where do you base them? What do they look like? Are they going to be sitting around at headquarters on 24-hour alert waiting to be called?”
A C.I.A. spokesman declined to comment for this article.
There has been intense speculation about the nature of the program since members of the House Intelligence Committee disclosed last week that Mr. Panetta had put an end to it. The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that the secret program was intended to capture or kill senior Qaeda leaders.
Current and former officials said that the program was designed as a more “surgical” solution to eliminating terrorists than missile strikes with armed Predator drones, which cannot be used in cities and have occasionally resulted in dozens of civilian casualties.
“The Predator strikes have been successful, and I was pleased to see the Obama administration continue them,” said Senator Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “This was another effort that was trying to accomplish the same objective.”
Mr. Bond would not discuss specific details about the terminated C.I.A. program.
It is not clear why Mr. Panetta decided to cancel the program. The C.I.A. never proposed a specific operation to the White House for approval, said the officials, who would only speak anonymously because the program had been classified.
Because the program never carried out any missions and because Congress had already signed off on the agency’s broad authorities after Sept. 11, the officials and some Republican legislators said the C.I.A. was not required to brief lawmakers on specifics of the program.
But Congressional Democrats were furious that the program had not been shared with the committees. The Senate and House oversight committees were created by law in the 1970s as a direct response to disclosures of C.I.A. abuses, notably including assassination plots against Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Fidel Castro in Cuba and other foreign politicians. President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 issued an executive order banning assassinations.
That ban does not apply to the killing of enemies in a war, government officials say. The Bush administration took the position that killing members of Al Qaeda, a terrorist group that has attacked the United States and stated that its goal is to attack again, is no different than shooting enemy soldiers on the battlefield. The Obama administration, which has continued to fire missiles from Predator drones on suspected Qaeda members in Pakistan, has taken the same view.
Kenneth Anderson, a law professor at American University who has studied targeted killings, said the United States first made the argument in 1989 that killing terrorists would not violate the assassination ban and would be a legal act of self-defense under international law.
Such killings would be premised on the condition that the authorities in the country where the terrorist was located were unable or unwilling to stop the terrorist, Mr. Anderson said.
In legal terms, he said, there is no real difference between killing a terrorist with a missile or with a handgun. “In political terms,” he continued, “there’s a real difference. The missile feels more like regular warfare, even if it’s carried out by the C.I.A.”
But any targeted killings make many specialists in international law uneasy. Hina Shamsi, an adviser to the Project on Extrajudicial Executions at New York University, said that any calculation about inserting an assassination team would have to consider the following: the violation of the sovereignty of the country where the killing occurred; the different legal status of the C.I.A. compared with the uniformed military; and whether the killing would be covered by the law of war.
“The issue is a complex one under international law,” Ms. Shamsi said, “and it encompasses all of the contentious issues of the years since 2001.”
In his 2006 book “State of War,” James Risen wrote that the C.I.A. set up paramilitary teams shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to hunt down top Qaeda operatives. Mr. Risen, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote that the operation was soon disbanded before the C.I.A. carried out any operations. But the spy agency continued to develop plans to focus on Qaeda operatives, and top C.I.A. officials were briefed periodically about the progress of these efforts, the officials familiar with the program said.
In spring 2008, Michael V. Hayden, then the agency’s director, and his top aides were told about one aspect of these plans that involved gathering sensitive information in a foreign country, a former senior intelligence official said.
Mr. Hayden ordered that the operation be scaled back and that Congress be notified if the plans became more fully developed, the official said.