- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Obama administration and its congressional supporters committed major blunders last week by canceling, leaking and then deciding to investigate a highly classified program to eliminate al Qaeda leaders. Although much remains hidden from public view, the controversy highlights peculiarities in President Obama’s view of his responsibilities as commander in chief.

Consider the legality and morality of using intelligence agencies to try to kill or capture key terrorists. In the post-Watergate congressional frenzy following President Nixon’s resignation, House and Senate committees happily exposed formerly covert operations in full detail, including purported assassination plots against foreign leaders.

Although assassination attempts had hardly been commonplace and rarely had succeeded, Democratic legislators nonetheless mounted a substantial effort to prohibit them. President Ford countered with an executive order generally to the effect of blocking such actions in order to avert even more draconian Hill action. Mr. Ford succeeded, with the added advantage that his order and subsequent modifications were worded carefully to keep open the assassination option, at least in some circumstances.

Today, many in Congress are again saying they are outraged at the possibility of “targeted killings” of al Qaeda leaders by U.S. intelligence operatives. Why this should be so is puzzling. America’s military forces have properly and legitimately been hard at work killing terrorists and destroying their capabilities since the murderous attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Obviously, however, in the war on terror, al Qaeda leaders do not conveniently dispose themselves on military battlefields, so the intelligence community’s clandestine efforts appear perfectly suited to the “war in the shadows” that terrorists typically employ very well. Surely the terrorists care little whether they are being killed by CIA agents disguised as peasants or by grunts in camouflage uniforms and dirty combat boots.

America was attacked with deadly force on Sept. 11 and before, and we are entitled to respond in self-defense, including using deadly force, until the threat from the terrorists and their state sponsors is ended.

These are principles both moral and legal in the United States. Americans think their government should provide for their “common defense,” in the Constitution’s phrase, and they have little patience with politicians who cringe at taking the necessary steps to do so, in both defense and intelligence.

The Obama administration ignores this widespread and entirely understandable thinking at its peril. When and where clandestine operations, including assassinations, can be effective is obviously a difficult question but it is one that has to be answered based on the circumstances presented, not through partisan arguments couched at the bumper-sticker level. In fact, unlike the administration, most Americans probably were more surprised and distressed that the CIA assassination plan was never implemented than that it existed.

That is why leaking the program and attributing its “suppression” from public knowledge to former Vice President Dick Cheney and then launching full-scale congressional investigations are actions Mr. Obama and his supporters soon will regret.

Although the leaking of the clandestine program within days after CIA Director Leon Panetta briefed the congressional leadership will not have broad political effect, it demonstrates, yet again, that Congress seems institutionally incapable of overseeing sensitive intelligence or military matters.

Leaks in Washington are inevitable and have come from members of both political parties, but this leak was manifestly for partisan reasons, a poisonous and utterly indefensible reason. As a response, broader briefing about clandestine operations, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi now proposes (which even Mr. Obama has threatened to veto), is hardly the answer.

Also, because it is the speaker herself who previously was not paying attention to precisely these types of briefing, even more restricted briefings are unlikely to be the answer, either. Congress simply has disqualified itself from serious involvement in covert operations, a grievous failing we ignore at our peril.

Another carnival-like investigation of clandestine operations may gladden anti-intelligence extremists who remember the mid-1970s carnage, but it should not deter those who support robust covert capabilities from welcoming a full and vigorous debate.

We have, in the public consciousness, come too far from the deadly attacks of Sept. 11. Americans are a vigorous, forward-looking people, and we occasionally need to be reminded even of the recent past. An open debate about how to defend ourselves and our allies against terrorists would be quite useful, reminding all of us exactly what the stakes are, what kind of enemy we face, and why this must necessarily be a sustained effort.

Mr. Obama is too smart a politician not to understand that a battle royal over al Qaeda will distract attention from his increasingly desperate efforts to make dramatic domestic changes in America. He will rue the day his administration decided to cancel this never-implemented anti-terrorist program and then gloat over it. He has thus likely conjured up a salutary public debate on the global war on terrorism, a phrase we need to hear repeated again and again.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the 2007 book “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad.”

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