Although the story broke on July 8, even now we have only the most shadowy notion of what the top secret program that Dick Cheney ordered the CIA to keep secret even from the Gang of Eight might actually involve.
Investigative reporters have been forced to fall back on lots of heavy breathing; there haven’t been even brief and tantalizing glimpses of any flesh.
This is the best the NYT could do Saturday:
Intelligence and Congressional officials have said the unidentified program did not involve the C.I.A. interrogation program and did not involve domestic intelligence activities. They have said the program was started by the counterterrorism center at the C.I.A. shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but never became fully operational, involving planning and some training that took place off and on from 2001 until this year.
According to the NYT, “the unidentified program was devised” in “the tense months after Sept. 11, when Bush administration officials believed new Qaeda attacks could occur at any moment (and) intelligence officials brainstormed about radical countermeasures.” Moreover,
Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House intelligence committee, said last week that he believed Congress would have approved of the program only in the angry and panicky days after 9/11, on 9/12, he said, but not later, after fears and tempers had begun to cool.
They do a bang-up job of whetting the appetite, don’t they? But it’s not exactly clear whether a single one of the seven veils is ever coming off (or when).
The Washington Post was able to add more tantalization, but not even the flimsiest of actual details:
Two former agency officials who were familiar with the program said it involved a series of proposals over several years for providing the intelligence agencies with a “needed capability,” one of the officials said. The latest proposal was aired in the spring of 2008 but was not carried out, the officials said.
One former official said that … the program fell on a continuum between foreign intelligence collection and covert action; the latter involves taking steps to influence events overseas, and generally falls within more stringent congressional notification rules.
They do underline that the unknown details must be pretty hot stuff:
A senior congressional aide said the magnitude of the program and the decision to keep it secret should not be downplayed. “Panetta found out about this for the first time, and within 24 hours was in the office telling us,” the aide said. “If this wasn’t a big deal, why would the director of the CIA come sprinting up to the Hill like that?”
(Incidentally, I am intrigued by the L.A. Times‘ report that the CIA has “opened an internal inquiry in recent days into the history of the program and the decisions made by a series of senior officials to withhold information about it from Congress.” What exactly do they plan to investigate? Why the CIA obediently complied with Cheney’s order to withhold information from Congress? If so, maybe at some point they will eventually get around to investigating why the CIA obediently complied with orders to operate secret prisons, and to perform extraordinary renditions and torture? Or are those things not considered more objectionable than withholding information from Congress? )
Meanwhile, here’s how little flesh intrepid investigative reporters have been able to put on display so far. According to the L.A. Times:
Some former high-level CIA officials said they remained puzzled about which program could be at the center of the budding controversy.
Are they just being disingenuous? Or are there really multiple CIA programs that fit the publicly disclosed “facts”? To recap, those “facts” are:
— a counterterrorism program launched shortly after 9/11 that involved planning and training off and on from 2001 until this year, but which never became fully operational
— a program that Cheney decreed (pun intentional) must be kept secret from Congress
— a program that involved a series of proposals over several years for providing the intelligence agencies with a “needed capability”
— a program that falls on a continuum between foreign intelligence collection and covert action
Admittedly, that’s pretty thin gruel. But former high-level CIA officials are actually aware of several CIA programs that would fit?
*** Update, 6:36 a.m. ***
The Wall Street Journal claims to have the scoop:
A secret Central Intelligence Agency initiative terminated by Director Leon Panetta was an attempt to carry out a 2001 presidential authorization to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives, according to former intelligence officials familiar with the matter.
What’s not clear is why Cheney would order the CIA to keep such a program secret from Congress. Maybe the devil is in the details?