CIA DIRECTOR Leon Panetta did the right thing last month upon learning that the CIA had a scheme on the drawing board for sending assassination teams into other countries to kill Al Qaeda leaders. Panetta annulled the program immediately, and the next day he told House and Senate oversight committees about the hit-squad plan, which the Bush administration had kept secret from Congress at the urging of former vice president Dick Cheney.
As a former congressman, Panetta grasped that the executive branch has a legal obligation - which it has sometimes shirked - to report all significant intelligence operations to the designated members of Congress. In this case, the program never became operational. Cheney apparently thought that premature reporting to congressional oversight committees might compromise operational secrecy. He reasoned that there would be no need to tell legislators about the program until an operation was ready to be launched.
That reasoning was both fallacious and dangerous.
It is explicit US policy to capture or kill Al Qaeda leaders. But even if CIA hit squads in allied countries are morally or ethically equivalent to the military’s use of missiles fired from drones, the use of CIA assassins on foreign soil could have legal, diplomatic, and political repercussions in the countries where the killings took place.
On most issues, acts by the executive branch must stand up to public scrutiny. In intelligence matters, a few democratically elected lawmakers provide an indispensable check on the White House. By keeping the CIA’s unrealized assassination plan secret from Congress, Cheney endangered the core American principle of government rooted in a balance of powers.