A programme to use CIA assassins to hunt down and kill members of al Qa'eda has been shut down by the head of the US intelligence agency but there are conflicting accounts on whether any operations were carried out. "A ferocious dispute between the CIA and congressional Democrats centres on an ultrasecret effort launched by agency officials after 9/11 to draw up plans to hunt down and kill terrorists using commando teams similar to those deployed by Israel after the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, according to a former senior US official," Newsweek reported. "Officials of the CIA's undercover spying branch, then known as the Directorate of Operations, on and off over the last several years repeatedly floated and revised plans for such operations, which would involve sending squads of operatives overseas, sometimes into friendly countries, to track and assassinate al Qa'eda leaders, much the same way Israeli Mossad agents sent assassins to Europe to kill men they believed responsible for murdering Israeli Olympic athletes, the former official said. But several former and current officials said the highly classified plans, which last week provoked bitter argument between Congress and the CIA, never became 'fully operational,' and CIA Director Leon Panetta put an end to the program in June.[...] "[It was] Panetta who inadvertently touched off the current controversy on June 24 when he gave what one official described as 'emergency briefings' to House and Senate Intelligence Committee members. Panetta described how he had recently learned about the programme and issued an order terminating it. Officials said Panetta also told the committees that Cheney had ordered the agency not to share information with Congress about the programme. Now some former officials and agency supporters on Capitol Hill are accusing Panetta of maladroitly handling the controversy by exaggerating Cheney's role, thereby feeding red meat to the agency's enemies and dealing a self-inflicted wound to an agency already besieged over allegations of other Bush-era lapses, including the use of harsh interrogation techniques on captured terror suspects." Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer writing for The American Conservative said: "My sources are telling me that the secret CIA programme involving a Dick Cheney coverup that is currently in the news consisted of dispatching assassination teams to various countries to kill individuals who were known to be al Qa'eda supporters but who, for various reasons, had not been detained by the governments of the countries in which they were residing. A number of those being targeted were living freely in Latin America, Africa, and Europe. The assassins were to be drawn from CIA's own special ops group and also from Delta Force. They would enter the target countries as businessmen on false passports, some of which would be non-American, obtain weapons sent ahead through the diplomatic pouch to the US embassy, kill the target, turn the weapons back over to an embassy contact, and leave the country. The programme used delta soldiers initially because CIA Special Operations Group was fully engaged in Afghanistan. The first hit attempt was in Kenya, was botched, and the Deltas had to be bailed out by the ambassador who had not been briefed on what was going on under his nose. The programme was suspended after that but never quite terminated." The first widely reported suggestion that the Bush administration might have sanctioned the use of assassination teams came earlier this year from the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who claimed that such units had been created by US military special forces, not the CIA, and had been fully operational. Speaking at the University of Minnesota on March 10, Mr Hersh referred to an ongoing covert military operation that he called an "executive assassination ring". "Congress has no oversight of it. It's an executive assassination ring essentially, and it's been going on and on and on. Just today in the [New York] Times there was a story that its leaders, a three star admiral named [William H] McRaven, ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths. "Under President Bush's authority, they've been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That's been going on, in the name of all of us. "It's complicated because the guys doing it are not murderers, and yet they are committing what we would normally call murder. It's a very complicated issue. Because they are young men that went into the Special Forces. The Delta Forces you've heard about. Navy Seal teams. Highly specialised. "In many cases, they were the best and the brightest. Really, no exaggerations. Really fine guys that went in to do the kind of necessary jobs that they think you need to do to protect America. And then they find themselves torturing people. "I've had people say to me - five years ago, I had one say: 'What do you call it when you interrogate somebody and you leave them bleeding and they don't get any medical committee and two days later he dies. Is that murder? What happens if I get before a committee?'" The Wall Street Journal reported: "Targeted killing of terrorists is prohibited by presidential orders banning assassinations that date back to the Ford administration. But the president can waive that order, said Vicki Divoll, a former CIA counsel, because there is no specific federal law that bans the practice. "There's also no legal difference, she said, between killing al Qa'eda targets with a hit team or with an unmanned drone, because the 'intent to kill a targeted person' defines an assassination. "The CIA has recently opted to step up its use of Predator and Reaper drones to kill al Qa'eda and related militants in Pakistan's tribal areas. That programme is done in consultation with Pakistani officials and is less risky than sending in individuals, because it doesn't involve US personnel on the ground. "One official with direct knowledge of the secret programme said that assassination teams could be more effective than taking out al Qa'eda leaders with drone-fired missiles. 'We're talking about the difference between two feet and 50,000 feet,' said one official with direct knowledge of the programme. 'Do you want the collateral damage of 50,000 feet or two?'"
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