The CIA’s secret plan: Did Cheney commit a crime?

Dick Cheney has come under scrutiny for ordering the CIA not to tell Congress about a post-9/11 plan to assassinate al Qaida operatives with paramilitary hit teams.

“Dick Cheney’s accountability moment may finally be arriving,” said John Nichols in As vice president, he repeatedly pushed the boundaries of executive privilege, insisting that his various secretive activities were exempt from the scrutiny of the public, the courts, and even Congress. But this week it was revealed that Cheney blatantly and unambiguously violated the law, by directly ordering the CIA not to tell Congress about a post-9/11 plan to assassinate terrorists in friendly countries. The never-realized plan sounded like a Tom Clancy plot: Elite paramilitary hit teams would have been inserted into Pakistan and other countries where al Qaida operatives were hiding, to assassinate them without the knowledge or consent of local authorities. “It was straight out of the movies,” said one CIA official. “It was like: ‘Let’s kill them all.’” CIA Director Leon Panetta only learned of the program last month; within 24 hours he told key congressional leaders that he’d canceled it, and that it was Cheney who’d ordered the CIA to keep the whole thing under wraps.

No surprise there, said Marty Kaplan in Under the 1947 National Security Act, the CIA has to brief appropriate congressional oversight committees on its covert activities abroad. But Cheney made it clear in his eight years in office that he regarded that law—and others passed after CIA and FBI abuses in the 1970s—as impediments to national security. In his mind, “he was smarter than us, and he loved his country more than us, and if the Constitution stood in his way, well, who the hell’s going to care about a piece of paper when anthrax takes out New York and a dirty bomb takes out L.A.?” Now congressional Democrats are demanding an investigation, and if Cheney isn’t finally held accountable for spitting on the rule of law, “it will be more than a pity. It will be another crime.”

The Democrats’ attempt to frame Cheney is “their most ludicrous gambit in a long time—and that’s saying something,” said Andrew McCarthy in National Review Online. By all indications, the assassination plan was never carried out and didn’t even get beyond the “brainstorming” phase. Therefore, the CIA was under no obligation to inform Congress. Besides, is the public or anyone in Congress really surprised that the CIA was working on plans to kill Osama bin Laden and al Qaida’s murderous leadership? Now, if there was no such plan, that would have been a crime. The fact that we all now know about the CIA’s internal discussions only proves that Cheney was right, said Marc Thiessen, also in National Review Online. Panetta tells Congress and, overnight, it’s on the front page of several newspapers. “With this latest leak, Congress has shown once again it cannot be trusted with highly classified information.”

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The real fight over this disclosure won’t be between Republicans and Democrats, said Joan Walsh in It will be between Democrats and their president. To the Democrats’ frustration, Obama has “opposed all of Congress’ threats and demands” to ferret out the whole truth about torture, warrantless wiretaps, and other post-9/11 excesses of “the lawless Bush-Cheney years.” Barack Obama would rather look forward, to his own agenda, than get bogged down in prosecuting Bush administration wrongdoing. But the uproar over the CIA assassination plan suggests that the “revelations will continue.” If the president doesn’t address them, they will “become part of his legacy, not just Bush and Cheney’s.”

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