WASHINGTON — As CIA director in 2004, George Tenet terminated a secret program to develop hit teams to kill al-Qaida leaders, but his successors resurrected the plan, according to former intelligence officials.
Tenet ended the program because the agency could not work out its practical details, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity about the classified program.
Porter Goss, who replaced Tenet in 2005, restarted the program, the former officials said. By the time Michael Hayden succeeded Goss as CIA chief in 2006, the effort was again flagging because of practical challenges.
CIA Director Leon Panetta drove the final stake into the effort in June after learning about the program. He called an emergency meeting with the House and Senate Intelligence committees the next day, informing lawmakers about the program and saying that as vice president, Dick Cheney had directed the CIA not to inform Congress about the operation.
The CIA declined to comment on the former officials' remarks.
One former senior intelligence official said Wednesday that the idea never quite died because it was a capability — the details of which remain classified — that the CIA wanted in its arsenal. But, as time wore on, the source said, its need became less urgent.
Another former official said that the CIA's reliance on foreign intelligence services and on drone-launched missile strikes proved over time to be less risky yet effective in targeting al-Qaida chiefs for death or capture. President George W. Bush authorized the killing of al-Qaida leaders in 2001.
The House Intelligence Committee is laying the groundwork for a possible investigation of the program and its concealment from Congress. In late June it asked the CIA to provide documents about the now-canceled program to kill al-Qaida leaders.