Debra J. Saunders

Last weekend, the New York Times reported that after 9/11, the CIA developed a "secret counterterrorism program" to train hit squads to kill top al-Qaida leaders. It seemed like good news to me. After all, why bankroll an intelligence agency if you can't use it to kill an enemy against whom America has declared war?

The news hooks: CIA director Leon Panetta killed the program last month after he told Senate and House Intelligence committees about the program.

And: Congress allegedly did not know about the nonoperational operation because, according to unnamed sources, former Veep Dick Cheney told the agency not to disclose the program to Congress.

The part of the story that undermined the story: The covert program "never became fully operational, involving planning and some training that took place off and on from 2001 until this year."

In plain English that means: Nothing happened -- there never were any Jason Bournes -- and no one informed the intelligence committees about it.

Subsequent stories elsewhere reported that the program never got off the ground. CIA Director George Tenet killed the program in 2004. Tenet's successor, Porter Goss, revived the program, but it never became operational, even when Michael Hayden, and later Panetta, took over as CIA chief.

Some unnamed sources say Cheney told the CIA not to tell Congress about the nonoperational operation; other sources claimed Cheney was not involved. Cheney isn't talking. My guess: If Cheney told the CIA to cork it, someone at the CIA's Langley headquarters would have leaked the whole story years ago. After all, the Bush years were replete with unnamed sources leaking classified intelligence on Iraq, wiretapping and efforts to squeeze al-Qaida's finances.

It turns out the New York Times reported "a list of terrorist leaders the Central Intelligence Agency is authorized to kill" on Dec. 15, 2002.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Democrat, has argued there should be an investigation of the CIA's failure to disclose. He told ABC's "This Week," "To have a massive program that is concealed from the leaders in Congress is not only inappropriate, it could be illegal." But the National Security Act requires the CIA to "keep the congressional intelligence committees fully and currently informed of all covert actions" -- not necessarily brainstorming.

Debra J. Saunders

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