Democrats push to investigate Bush-era counter-terrorism tactics

Former Vice President Dick Cheney oversaw secret counter-terrorism program

Reports linking former Vice President Dick Cheney to a secret C.I.A. program that aimed to lethally target al-Qaida operatives within close range have prompted Democrats to push for a congressional investigation into the Bush administration's anti-terrorism strategies and torture practices.

The highly classified C.I.A. program, which was authorized by President George W. Bush shortly after the 11 September attacks in 2001, planned to dispatch teams of individuals overseas to capture and kill al-Qaida leaders on the ground, former and current intelligence officials report. The program, which was never fully executed, was kept secret from Congressional lawmakers.

C.I.A. director Leon Panetta first learned of the program on 23 June and, for unconfirmed reasons, immediately cancelled it. Panetta informed both the House and Senate intelligence committees of its existence in separate emergency briefings the following day.

Highly classified program documents reveal that Cheney made the initial order to keep the program a secret. The former vice president's reasons for secrecy remain unclear.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who heads the Senate intelligence committee and supports the push for a congressional investigation into the Bush administration's counter-terrorism tactics, said the C.I.A.'s failure to inform lawmakers of the eight-year program was out of bounds.

“The law is very clear”, said Feinstein. "We were kept in the dark. That's something that should never, ever happen again”.

The C.I.A. had no obligation to inform Congress of the program, some Republican lawmakers have argued. Congress gave the spy agency great discretion following the 11 September attacks and devising an alternate strategy to target al-Qaida operatives was within that discretion, they said.

Some planning and training went into the program, although no missions were ever attempted.

The U.S. has mostly resorted to unmanned airborne missile attacks to lethally target al-Qaida leaders hiding in areas with difficult terrain or high numbers of armed guerrilla forces. The C.I.A. program advanced close-range, ground-level tactics to enable the capture of al-Qaida operatives in denser regions without putting the civilian populations at risk, a government official said.

Knowledge of the secret counter-terrorism program surfaced amid reports that Attorney General Eric Holder is debating whether to launch a criminal investigation into the harsh interrogation tactics used on suspected terrorists at C.I.A. “black sites” following 11 September.

President Obama does not support any move to investigate Bush-era counter-terrorism practices. He has said the country should be “looking forward, not backwards”.