The Right Reason to Shut Down the CIA's Bin Laden Assassination Program

The tough question that Congress needs to be asking is: Why didn’t it work?

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

There is only one good reason for Leon Panetta to have shut down the CIA's secret program to kill Osama bin Laden. And it is not that Dick Cheney didn't tell Congress about it.

It's that, apparently, it didn't work.

I'm with the hawks on this one. I would be more shocked and furious to discover that we don't have a team of assassins on the trail of the al Qaeda leaders, than to nitpick the Bush administration for not furnishing every last detail to Congress.

Every sentient being on the planet (and that presumably includes members of Congress) knows we want to kill bin Laden. We have been shooting cruise missiles at al Qaeda for years. And everyone on Earth knows we now fly armed drones in the skies over Pakistan and Afghanistan, firing down at various al Qaeda and Taliban targets. But the Bush White House, apparently, did not inform Congress that there was also a CIA program to deploy specially-trained teams of assassins on the ground.

So what? Anyone who read Ghost Wars, Steve Coll's book on Afghanistan, knows that the CIA has been trying to get agency-led groups of Afghans to shoot, blow up or kidnap bin Laden for a decade—going back before 9/11, into the Clinton years. Reportedly, Congress was not informed of the beefed-up Bush-era program because Cheney and others wanted to keep it secret, for security reasons, until an operation was set to go. And that may be the real scandal. Granted, it is no easy task to find an al Qaeda leader and, with the help of the locals, to infiltrate and assassinate a well-protected terrorist.

But seven years and zero attempts?

It sounds like our intelligence agencies are still operating with the same limitations that the 9/11 commission described: an over-reliance on technology, lack of knowledge about the habits and customs (and language) of the targets, and an inability to get (human) spies in close. If not, and the Bush-era operation was in fact making real progress, it would be a terrible mistake for President Obama and Panetta to shut it down to soothe some ruffled feathers on the Hill, and thus force the intelligence community to start over, and re-invent the wheel.

The tough question that Congress needs to be asking is: Why didn't it work? Not: Why weren't we told?

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