The U.S. Congress has their knickers in a twist because apparently the C.I.A. kept from them plans associated with a program designed to kill off al Qaeda leaders. While I think the Congress is right to be disturbed by this apparent cover-up -- and they should go after whomever may have violated the law by keeping the program from them -- it seems to me we're missing the point here.
Shouldn't we be at least equally concerned that in the eight years since the 9/11 attacks, the C.I.A. couldn't get its act together sufficiently to actually deploy the program to kill the al Qaeda leaders we intended to target? If there was ever an instance where the covert use of force was utterly justified it was in hunting down and killing this enemy.
In today's New York Times story "C.I.A. Had Plan to Assassinate Al Qaeda Leaders," the reasons the program got bogged down are laid out. Bureaucratic debates about whether it would be legal to employ such methods are perhaps inevitable and frankly, I'm all for having checks in our system that actually indicate a respect for the rule of law. But let's be serious, we find it is ok to violate national sovereignty with unmanned aircraft but not with people? It's ok to use those unmanned aircraft to fire missiles at bad guys that may or may not blow up dozens of innocent by-standers but it is not ok to undertake an approach where such collateral damage is even less likely? This is through-the-looking-glass legalism, so twisted and absurd that it must be about something else.
One hopes it is not about another reason the plan was difficult which is offered in the article -- the difficulty of figuring out where to base such operations. It is easy for anyone who has been in the U.S. government to imagine such a discussion ... but I wouldn't advise it. Because it makes your head want to explode.
Which brings us to the real problem. It's reflected in the quote: "It sounds great in the movies but when you do it, it's not that easy." Clearly, the concern was that the operation would fail and in failing it would be an embarrassment. But, who said these things were supposed to be easy? They are clearly as difficult as any operations the government can undertake. But when you are confronted by an enemy who uses foreign sovereignty and the presence of innocents for cover, such initiatives are essential.
Yes, it's hard, risky and will put U.S. lives and our national reputation on the line. So too is winning a land war in Afghanistan. So too is working with a divided, complex, unreliable ally like Pakistan. So too is trying to achieve anything on the shifting sands of the Middle East.
Also very difficult and very risky is coordinating an attack on the other side of the world that involves multiple hijackings and airborne attacks on major U.S. targets. So too will be the WMD attack that will inevitably change the nature of the war on terror. In other words, this is a different kind of enemy. It doesn't help matters that the Bush administration overstated the risks from this enemy, bungled the war against them and sought to use national panic over this real risk to justify extraneous and calamitous missions. But as President Obama has been clear, that doesn't mean the threat from al Qaeda and similar groups has abated. Drones have an important role to play, especially in areas in which the risks of collateral damage are more limited. More densely populated areas provide a different kind of cover that requires a different kind of solution.
The CIA needs to report as the law requires to the Congress. But the U.S. intelligence community needs the ability to do what this program reportedly intended to do. Killing the program wasn't the right response. Redoubling efforts to make it work would have been.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.