R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby Warrick | Washington Post | August 21, 2009
News of ‘Targeted Killing’ Program Precedes Interrogation Report, Possible Probe
The disclosure Wednesday of the CIA’s decision five years ago to let a private security contractor help manage its sensitive effort to kill senior al-Qaeda members drew congressional criticism Thursday on the eve of key decisions by the Obama administration that current and former intelligence officials fear could compound the spy agency’s political troubles.
Those decisions include the expected release Monday of newly declassified portions of a 2004 CIA report that questions the legality and effectiveness of the agency’s harsh interrogations at secret prisons. Additionally, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. may order a probe of possible criminal actions by CIA officers and contractors during those interrogations.
“In September, you are going to have a hurricane coming through Washington that is aimed right at the intelligence community,” warned Porter J. Goss, the CIA’s director from September 2004 to May 2006. He noted that a Justice Department inquiry is also pending into whether laws were broken when CIA officers destroyed videotapes of the harsh interrogations.
Democratic House and Senate lawmakers and staff members have already described as inappropriate the Bush administration’s decision to hand management and training responsibility for the CIA’s “targeted killing” efforts to Blackwater USA, and they have reiterated their intent to press for speedier and more complete disclosure by the agency of such activities in the future. CIA Director Leon E. Panetta terminated the program in June, shortly before telling Congress about its existence.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the intelligence committee, sharpened her previous criticism of the program. “It is clear to me that the failure to notify before now constituted a violation of law,” she said in a statement Thursday.
She said she could not address the program’s parameters but emphasized that it “had, in fact, gone beyond the simple planning stage.”
“I have believed for a long time that the Intelligence Community is over-reliant on contractors to carry out its work,” she said. “This is especially a problem when contractors are used to carry out activities that are inherently governmental.”
Democrats have previously pushed to ban the use of contractors to conduct interrogations, and some suggested Thursday that the restriction should extend to hit squads. “There is still too much being done by contractors that ought to be done by government employees,” said a congressional staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the CIA program remains classified.
Goss said he had not been fully briefed on the details of the CIA activities in question, many of which are classified, so he could not confirm the reported involvement of Blackwater, now known as Xe Services LLC. A spokeswoman for the firm did not return a phone call Thursday, but two former intelligence officers familiar with the effort said the company had received millions of dollars for helping train and equip teams to undertake the killings.
Goss alluded to that effort, stating that “my standing orders were ‘field-forward’ mission.”
“We wanted to catch the people who brought down the trade centers and killed innocent people and wanted to kill more,” he said. “And we wanted to have every possible legal means at our disposal that we could to deal with them. That was certainly in my vision statement, and that is the briefing that was given to members of Congress” during his tenure.
“In my view, we should constantly be looking at all our options in terms of national security,” Goss said. “Suppose you got a high-value guy, a terrorist, part of al-Qaeda, a radical fundamentalist trained to kill innocent people, who you cannot talk down from the tree. What happens when you actually find that guy? Do you send the FBI? That’s probably not the best option for the tribal areas” in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Political controversy over conducting lethal activities overseas stems from the fact that “we have not resolved the basic rules of engagement for covert forces in the world today,” Goss said. “It keeps getting pushed by the prevailing political winds.” He added that the CIA, when confronted by a particularly tough problem involving a shortage of manpower, too much regulation or political indecision, has “a tendency to say, ‘Let’s see if we can farm this out.’ That does not mean we are trying to evade a law, but to get the mission done in a creditable way.”
One motive the CIA might have for hiring contractors may be to add personnel without officially enlarging its bureaucracy, Goss said. “But it’s also the case that there are some folks at retirement age who still feel like they have some horsepower left, so they go off into a consulting business and make themselves available.”
A former intelligence official familiar with the effort said the decision to outsource a substantial portion of the program stemmed partly from the agency’s close ties to Blackwater, which hired several of the agency’s top executives, including former CIA counterterrorism chief Cofer Black and former deputy director for operations Robert Richer.
A second former intelligence official intimately familiar with Blackwater’s role said that there was never a formal contract, but rather a verbal agreement between top executives of the company and the agency. The former official said that the agreement covered only Blackwater’s expenses and overhead, with no additional profit for the firm. “No one made a dime off of this,” the former official said.
Michael V. Hayden, Goss’s successor as CIA director, also declined Thursday to comment on Blackwater’s involvement in the targeted killing program but told reporters that the use of contractors had ended by the time he became head of the agency in 2006. At the time he learned about it, he said, the initiative was still in the planning stages and “never reached either the political or the legal threshold” that would have triggered a mandatory congressional briefing.
“Somewhere in that mix, I probably would have gone down to talk to Congress, but . . . the threshold I probably would have first crossed was a political one, not a legal one,” Hayden said. There was no specific legal requirement, he said, but “the fact was that this was maybe of a bit of a different flavor than the kinds of things we had briefed the Hill on in the past.”
Presidential aides, as well as CIA officials, have said they fear that heightened controversy over the Bush administration’s counterterrorism efforts will push the Obama administration into a partisan debate it has sought to avoid.
The release of the CIA report Monday — on a date picked by a federal judge in New York in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union — will come as the president settles into his holiday at Martha’s Vineyard, increasing the likelihood that it will draw attention during a political lull.
Hayden said he expects the report’s release to damage CIA morale, even though some passages will bolster CIA assertions that the harsh interrogations had helped the country learn about “the basic infrastructure of al-Qaeda” and plan its counterattack.
Holder, speaking at a news conference in Washington, said the Justice Department has worked closely with the CIA in an effort to release only those portions of the report that will not compromise national security. “We will not be doing anything that will endanger the American people,” Holder said.
Staff writers Ben Pershing, Anne E. Kornblut and Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.