WASHINGTON — Since 2001, the CIA has developed plans to dispatch small teams overseas to kill senior al-Qaida terrorists, according to current and former government officials.
The plans were never carried out, the officials said, and CIA director Leon Panetta canceled the program last month.
Officials at the spy agency over the years ran into myriad logistical, legal and diplomatic obstacles: How could the role of the United States be masked? Should allies be informed and might they block the access of the CIA teams to their targets? What if American officers or their foreign surrogates were caught in the midst of an operation? Would such activities violate international law or U.S. restrictions on assassinations overseas?
Yet year after year, according to officials briefed on the program, the plans were never completely shelved because the Bush administration sought an alternative to killing terror suspects with missiles fired from drone aircraft or seizing them overseas and locking them in secret CIA prisons.
Panetta scuttled the program, which would have relied on paramilitary teams, shortly after the CIA's counterterrorism center informed him of its existence. The next day, June 24, he told congressional intelligence committees that the plan had been hidden from lawmakers, initially at the instruction of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
The program was designed in the frantic weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks when President George W. Bush signed a secret order authorizing the CIA to capture or kill al-Qaida operatives. To be able to kill Osama bin Laden or his top deputies wherever they might be — even in cities or countries far from a war zone — struck top officials as an urgent goal, according to people involved in the discussions.
But in practice, creating and training the teams proved to be difficult.
"It sounds great in the movies, but when you try to do it, it's not that easy," said one former intelligence official. "Where do you base them? What do they look like? Are they going to be sitting around at headquarters on 24-hour alert waiting to be called?"
A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
There has been intense speculation about the nature of the program since members of the House Intelligence Committee disclosed last week that Panetta had put an end to it.
Current and former officials said the program was designed as a more "surgical" solution to eliminating terrorists than missile strikes with Predator drones, which cannot be used in cities and have occasionally caused dozens of civilian casualties.
Congressional Democrats are furious that the program was not shared with the intelligence committees and have called for an investigation.