In the wake of embarrassing revelations of CIA-sponsored assassination plots against foreign leaders, Congress in the 1970s established intelligence committees to oversee clandestine operations. The intention was to keep a select group of congressional members abreast of CIA activities as a check against extralegal actions by the agency or the president. But even this limited oversight role was apparently too much for Dick Cheney, who as vice president directed that Congress be kept in the dark about a classified CIA program designed to use assassins to kill al-Qaida leaders around the world.
No matter what one may think of the program, Cheney's enforced secrecy was a betrayal of the best parts of the American system of government — its checks and balances — and another example of his dangerous view that the executive branch may act unilaterally in national security matters regardless of law.
The CIA program was established soon after the attacks of 9/11, according to published reports. Paramilitary teams made up of American officers or possibly foreign surrogates would be sent to kill terror suspects in countries that either couldn't or wouldn't act against the threats themselves.
After CIA director Leon Panetta learned about the program in June —why he was not briefed earlier raises its own cadre of questions — he shut it down and informed the congressional intelligence committees. The assassin squads reportedly were never made operational due to the complexity of the effort and lingering questions over violations of international law and sovereignty.
In the chaotic weeks after 9/11, it is highly likely that Intelligence Committee members would have approved this methodology. Even so, the CIA had a legal duty to brief Congress on a counterterrorism program that had such significant potential to disrupt America's long-standing relationships with foreign powers.
This lapse falls into a disturbing pattern where members of Congress, including former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, a onetime chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, claim they were not fully informed by the CIA of its ongoing counterterrorism programs. Graham says that at briefings on interrogations, he was not told of the CIA's waterboarding of prisoners, an allegation shared by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, though denied by the CIA.
Despite Cheney's distaste for congressional oversight, he did not have the discretion to keep the program a secret. The law says the intelligence committees are to be "fully" briefed on the CIA's activities. When a program involves covert action, the briefing can be limited to the so-called Gang of Eight, which includes the Democratic and Republican leaders of both houses of Congress and the leaders of the intelligence committees.
These oversight requirements are a vital accountability tool and a direct result of the CIA's past adventurism, including participation in plots to assassinate Cuba's Fidel Castro and Congo's Patrice Lumumba. The Intelligence Committee in the House has begun an inquiry into why its members were not briefed. The investigation should be thorough and no one should be beyond its reach, not even the former vice president.