On 10 July 2009 five current inspectors general of US intelligence agencies released a report summarizing their investigation of the President's Surveillance Program, the Bush administration program that included the warrantless wiretapping exposed by the New York Times in 2005.
That same day a letter from Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee to CIA Director Leon Panetta publicly reavealed that the CIA hid from Congress the existence of a secret program on orders from former Vice President Cheney. Days later it emerged that the CIA had planned kill squads that were supposed to target al Qaeda leaders in other countries, and that the program never went fully operational. This opened the floodgates of media opinion based on the assumption that the killing squads were the secret program Cheney ordered concealed.
The idea that these kill squads were the secret program that piqued Congress' ire, the one that generated all the interest when the letter revealed Panetta's cancellation of it, strains credibility.
First, why would the administration in 2001 hide a terrorist-killing program from the leaders of Congress and its Intelligence committees, the so-called "Gang of Eight"? Everyone at the time of the program's creation wanted the US to take action to stop terrorists. Congress would have been pleased to learn about and keep quiet about such operations. And numerous other like-minded operations were openly reported in subsequent years. Why all the secrecy about one that hadn't gone operational?
Second, who wouldn't think that the CIA was killing terrorists in other countries? Of course they are. So are numerous other "black" teams from defense intelligence units in the armed forces. This is what everyone assumes was authorized by the war powers resolution Congress gave to former President Bush after 9/11, a resolution which hasn't been rescinded. This is what the CIA has done for decades.
Third, there is an incongruity in the language used between the first days of the leak and the later reports of the assassination program. The coincidence of the PSP report and the revelation of Panetta's confession to Congress is an indicator that the terminated program was a part of the PSP, not assassination squads.
My hunch is that when the letter was made public, the continued sensitivity of the program required that a false but believable alternative be concocted to take its place. The terrorist-killing program fit that bill. Since the public can read in the papers that we are regularly killing terrorists with drones and missiles, they can still be confident that we haven't given up the offensive. But this one program, which supposedly had legal problems stemming from operating without authorization in the sovereign territory of our allies, could be sacrificed.
It seems to have worked; the story has evolved relatively quickly from the shock value of kill squads into discussions about how much Congressional oversight is required. As that is a boring argument, it too will soon fade away and the media's interest will shift to other matters. In a matter of about three weeks the whole story will have run its course.
But all of that leaves the question of what really was the program that Panetta terminated and then reported to the Gang of Eight. The viral spread of the first stories and a leaker's reference to "beyond wiretapping" indicates that it is related to and more publicly objectionable than the known program of tapping the international communications of certain foreign individuals. Whatever it is, if and when it is made public it will generate a firestorm of controversy about civil liberties and the power of the US government to monitor its citizens.
Finally, the story also brings into focus the Obama administration's nuanced and careful treatment of the balance between national security and governance. Reporting the program and its termination to Congress was a legal obligation, and the congressional intelligence committees are under legal obligation not to reveal classified matters. Until we have evidence of programs that Obama hid from Congress, we can assume that they're trying to show that they're following the law. But there is no way that the diversion of the storyline, from the mystery of what the secret program was to debating an oversight and balance of powers issue, was done without the active participation of the White House. They clearly saw the need to smother the fire that the Democratic leadership in Congress started by publishing the cancellation of a secret program.
The administration's legal disclosure obligation extends only to Congress, not to the American public. The administration clearly desires, for the moment anyway, the continued secrecy of the related "Other Intelligence Activities" activities in the report by the inspectors general. We can only hope that this is a temporary political decision, and that fuller release of the more invasive details of the PSP will await an environment when they can be put to more damaging use.