The Associated Press reported last week that the House Intelligence Committee is laying the groundwork for a formal investigation. If so, the committee might start by probing how it is that Intelligence Committee members didn't know about a plan that had been reported on the front page of the New York Times.
"The administration must notify Congressional leaders of any covert action finding signed by the president," the 2002 story reported. "In the case of the presidential finding authorizing the use of lethal force against members of al Qaeda, Congressional leaders have been notified as required, the officials said."
True, the New York Times did not stipulate that terrorists on the "secret list" might be dispatched by a bullet instead by a drone-launched missile. The story did mention that the CIA used a drone to kill an al-Qaida leader in Yemen.
One might recall that in 2002, even D.C. Democrats wanted to get Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants more than they wanted to get Dick Cheney.
The worst part of this story is that it suggests that the CIA is run by a bunch of half-cocked cowboys looking for a direction in which to point their guns -- while the very point of the hit squads was to kill the bad guys without killing innocent bystanders. And, I would add, to do so at great bodily risk to CIA agents.
No doubt, CIA brass in the end decided that the risks and diplomatic fallout of an agent getting caught -- either by the enemy or the press -- were too great.
Such are the sensibilities in Washington that, collateral damage notwithstanding, it is politically safer to bomb terrorists than to shoot them.
While Democrats demanding an investigation might have set out to mess with Cheney, the only clear casualty to date is one of their own: Panetta.
He rushed to disclose the nonoperational covert operation to Intelligence Committee members, and unnamed sources rewarded his candor by leaking the story. He shut down a program that, if never implemented, makes complete sense in time of war. Add it all together and Panetta got rolled.
The message to agency staff may be unintended, but it is clear: If there's anyone left at CIA headquarters who wants to defeat al-Qaida, that person would be well advised to hire a lawyer first. Or maybe a shrink.