- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

A CIA director for the Clinton White House on Thursday defended a George W. Bush administration initiative to assassinate al Qaeda leaders and the agency’s decision to keep the idea top secret.

“It doesn’t appear as if they actually did anything with respect to these projected or possible assassinations of al Qaeda leaders,” R. James Woolsey Jr., CIA director from 1993 to 1995, told The Washington Times’ “America’s Morning News” radio show.

“It looks like they talked about it. … I think the way the statute generally works is when you engage in planning or are on the verge of taking an action you really ought to be briefing your congressional committees, or the so-called Gang of Eight, the eight senior members of Congress, not when things are just at a talk stage.”

The Bush administration considered assembling a team overseas to assassinate al Qaeda leaders after the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

“We do assassinate al Qaeda leaders,” said Mr. Woolsey, 69. “We’re at war with al Qaeda.”

The hit-team idea recently surfaced when CIA Director Leon E. Panetta reportedly learned about the concept, then told congressional leaders last month that he had terminated it.

The recent focus on CIA activities began earlier this year when President Obama declared some of the Bush administration’s enhanced-interrogation techniques as torture.

In May, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, accused the agency of lying to her about the advanced techniques, including one known as waterboarding.

Mr. Woolsey, who endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential race, said Thursday that the United States has a long, unapologetic history of going after people who kill Americans that dates to at least World War II.

“This is no different than when we set up long-range fighters from aircraft carriers in the Pacific in 1942 and shot down the plane of Admiral Yamamoto, who commanded at Pearl Harbor and Midway. We killed him intentionally. … At war time, you do that.”

The United States has tried to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders since Sept. 11 with missile-firing, remote-control aircraft and special forces teams in Afghanistan.

However, the hit teams reportedly have been only an on-and-off idea in the past eight years.

CIA Director George Tenet reportedly canceled the classified plan in 2004, which was revived by his successor, Porter Goss, about a year later, and was then canceled again under the direction of Michael Hayden, who took over the agency in 2006.

Mr. Tenet could not be reached for comment.

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is considering an investigation into whether it was stonewalled by the CIA and how much was spent on the program, which could determine whether it progressed from talks to implementation.

“The scope, workplan and whether any inquiry will be bipartisan will have to be determined,” committee spokesman Jamal Ware said.

CIA spokesman George Little said the agency “will cooperate with Congress as it looks into this matter. At the same time, Director Panetta has ordered a thorough internal review that should result in lessons learned on congressional reporting.”

Mr. Panetta has stood by his early statement that the CIA does not have a policy of misleading Congress.

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