WASHINGTON – The secret CIA program halted last month by agency Director Leon E. Panetta involved the establishment of elite paramilitary teams that could be inserted into Pakistan or other locations to capture or kill top leaders of the al-Qaida terrorist network, according to former U.S. intelligence officials.
The program was never operational, but officials said that as recently as a year ago CIA executives discussed plans to deploy teams to test basic capabilities, including whether they could enter hostile territory and maneuver undetected, as well as track high-value targets.
The initiative was close to being scrapped several times as CIA officials struggled to find solutions to daunting logistical challenges. But even as the Predator drone emerged as a potent new weapon against al-Qaida, CIA officials continued to pursue the secret program as an additional lethal option.
“You always want to have capacity because you cannot predict opportunities,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official with extensive knowledge of the program.
With the emergence of the Predator, the official said, “we still wanted to explore having that capacity, but there wasn’t the same sense of urgency that may have existed before.”
The existence of the program, and the fact that it was kept secret from lawmakers for nearly eight years at the direction of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has fanned an already heated atmosphere in Washington over the Bush administration’s intelligence programs.
Leading Democratic lawmakers have said it was illegal for the CIA to fail to disclose the program to intelligence committees, and called for an investigation.
“Individuals who ordered that Congress be kept in the dark should be held accountable,” Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said Monday. Feingold said he also had expressed “deep concerns about the program itself” in a classified letter to President Barack Obama.
Panetta ordered the program terminated last month immediately after learning of it, and called emergency meetings with the House and Senate intelligence committees the next day to brief them.
Even so, a U.S. intelligence official indicated that Panetta has not ruled out reviving the effort to develop a similar special strike capability.
“We’re talking about a capability that never fully took shape, one that was derailed repeatedly over the years by concerns about its feasibility,” the U.S. intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “So killing it cost virtually nothing in operational terms.
“If the United States ever needs something like this in the future, we’ll find better ways to build it,” the official said. “That includes briefing Congress earlier on. Panetta understands all that. He’s an aggressive proponent of counterterrorism, pushing tools and tactics that work and have the support to be sustainable. This one didn’t.”
The program was launched in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at a time when CIA leaders, including then-Director George Tenet, were scrambling to sort out what the U.S. would do if it could determine the location of Osama bin Laden or other high-level al-Qaida leaders.