"Why tell Congress about a PowerPoint presentation?"

The sudden, shrieking hysteria over a proposed mission at the CIA to kill al-Qaeda’s top leadership and their key supporters has Robert Baer somewhat amused, and annoyed as well.  Time Magazine’s columnist on intelligence matters and a CIA veteran himself, Baer wonders why anyone thinks that the CIA shares all of its spitballing sessions with anyone, including Congress.

But like many of these stories, there’s less to it than meets the eye. The unit conducted no assassinations or grabs. A former CIA officer involved in the program told me that no targets were picked, no weapons issued and no one sent overseas to carry out anything. “It was little more than a PowerPoint presentation,” he said. “Why would we tell Congress?”

That’s a good question, especially since the program was an open secret. On Oct. 28, 2001, the Washington Post ran an article with the title “CIA Weighs ‘Targeted Killing’ Missions.” And in 2006, New York Times reporter James Risen wrote a book in which he revealed the program’s secret code name, Box Top . Moreover, it is well known that on Nov. 3, 2002, the CIA launched a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone over Yemen, killing an al-Qaeda member involved in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. And who knows how many “targeted killings” there have been in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Baer has first-hand experience with shrieking hysteria over the word “assassination”, though:

So why all the fuss? Very likely because of that word assassination. I found out the weight of the term in Washington when I was still in the CIA. In the spring of 1995 I was in charge of a small unit in northern Iraq. It was a time when it appeared that with only a little push, Saddam Hussein would fall. There were plans for a military coup, which were quickly twisted into rumors of a plan to assassinate Saddam. The Clinton White House picked up the assassination part and called the CIA to check. My team and I were pulled back to Washington. The FBI investigated, decided no one had planned to assassinate anyone, and dropped the matter. Eventually the Department of Justice sent a letter to the CIA “declining” to prosecute us for attempted murder.

The net effect of all this could kill the CIA, Baer warns, at a point when we can least afford to lose it.  Democrats in Congress have already targeted the agency in order to provide political cover for Nancy Pelosi after she tried to dodge responsibility for enhanced interrogations.  Panetta’s uncovering of a non-mission to kill AQ operatives just gives them political cover to demolish the CIA.

At the heart of this, though, lies a weird assumption — that an executive order against assassination somehow applies to an enemy of war.  The effort to decapitate al-Qaeda in 1998 was certainly an assassination attempt, conducted rather publicly and authorized (and publicly defended) by the Commander-in-Chief.  How does that differ from sending the CIA to effect the same result?  We used to call that “war,” back when we understood the meaning of the term.

This is nothing more than a political smokescreen to rescue Nancy Pelosi from herself, and a distraction from the mind-boggling details of ObamaCare.  Unfortunately, if it undermines the CIA during the war on terror, it’s a distraction that will get people killed.  I’d rather see Pelosi in retirement than the demolition of the intelligence effort against our enemies, and I suspect that most Americans would agree.

Update: Dennis Blair, Barack Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, apparently agrees (via Greg Sargent):

The Obama administration’s top intelligence official, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, yesterday defended Panetta’s decision to cancel the program, which he said had raised serious questions among intelligence officials about its “effectiveness, maturity and the level of control.”

But Blair broke with some Democrats in Congress by asserting that the CIA did not violate the law when it failed to inform lawmakers about the secret program until last month. Blair said agency officials may not have been required to notify Congress about the program, though he believes they should have done so.

As Baer points out in his column, the New York Times reported on the CIA’s spitballing on the issue in late 2001 and the Washington Post in 2002.  It was hardly an Eyes-Only secret.

Update II: Robert Baer, not Michael Baer. My apologies; working on two stories at the same time.