Assassination by PowerPoint

| Thu Jul. 16, 2009 10:15 AM EDT

Robert Baer writes in Time about the CIA program that's been kept secret from Congress for the past eight years.  It was, as well all know by now, an "assassination squad":

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?

As Baer goes on to point out, assassination is a no-no: "In the CIA, that was the closest thing we had to the Ten Commandments."  But what about assassination during wartime?  A plot to assassinate Saddam Hussein in 1995 would have been illegal, but the same plot in March 2003 would surely have been OK.  In fact, we tried pretty hard to do exactly that during the "shock and awe" bombing phase that kicked off the war.

But as usual, the "war on terror" is in a gray area all its own.  Is it a real war?  Is a guy with a sniper rifle different from an Air Force specialist guiding a Predator drone?  Is the CIA under the same restrictions it would be under during peacetime?  What are the rules?

If the news reports are right about this program, it deserves a full-scale investigation by Congress.  Everybody knows we're trying to kill al-Qaeda operatives one way or another, so it's not as if we'd be revealing any dark secrets of national security.  And if the whole thing really was just a "PowerPoint presentation," it might exonerate the CIA and remove the cloud currently surrounding them.  What's the argument against doing this?

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