Former CIA Director Michael Hayden Weighs in on Controversial Al Qaeda Assassination Program

ABC News' Luis Martinez reports:

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden participated in a timely National Press Club panel today on the use of contractors within the intelligence community. Timely, given today’s New York Times report that in 2004 the agency used the controversial private security contractor Blackwater as part of its program to assassinate top al Qaeda leaders, a program which apparently never became operational.

CIA Director Leon Panetta canceled the program after he became aware of its existence this past June and notified Congress setting off a political debate about why Congress had never been briefed about the program.

Hayden didn’t directly address the Blackwater angle reported in today’s papers, but described in a general sense how the CIA uses “surrogates” who “come in a variety of flavors and that an intelligence service like the CIA has the ability to choose among those flavors for different missions.”

He added, “Please keep that in mind, not everything the Agency has done is black and white, binary world, contractor-government employee...Even when something is done by surrogates on your behalf, you are as responsible for it as if it was being done by a government employee.”

Hayden said the agency relies on contractors because they may possess unique skill-sets they may have learned as CIA employees before they moved to the private sector. Using a football draft analogy, he said the CIA looks for the person “best suited for the job.”

But he also stressed that the inference that the agency goes to outside contractors “when we don’t want to accept responsibility” is “absolutely not true.” He added, we do not use contractors to carve out something where we want to deflect responsibility, that is simply wrong.”

Hayden’s answers today provided the first and most extensive on-camera comments he’s made about the program nixed by Panetta and which he immediately briefed to Congress upon his learning about it.

His most revealing insight is that when he heard of Panetta’s actions he said to himself “what could he possibly be talking about” and when he discovered what it was proceeded to ask himself, “why is he briefing that?” He explained that under his tenure at the Agency (2006-2008) the CIA was “very very aggressive in briefing Congress,” about programs. To not do so, he characterized as “suicidal” which explains why he said “our threshold to brief was incredibly low.” He related how in his final briefing to Congress he’d told them “you know everything I know” and said that included “some pretty exciting stuff.” That’s why his initial reaction was one of surprise that this program had triggered Panetta’s congressional notification.

Hayden said he’s learned more about this program in the last six weeks since it first came out in the press than he did during his entire tenure as CIA Director. He described how it occupied a very small percentage of his time and added that he’d never briefed the President, the Vice President, or National Security Advisor Hadley about the program. He disputed the characterizations in the press that the program was a continuous effort for the past 8 years saying it was probably more like three separate efforts under three separate CIA Directors. A former intelligence official confirms that George Tenet had killed the program and that it did not include Blackwater contractors when terminated in 2004, but that Porter Goss had revived the program

Without knowing what prompted Panetta’s reaction he said that if he’d been in his shoes his motivation in telling Congress would have been more political than a legal one because a program was about to go active. He described a scenario where new information would have led him to conclude, “well, this is different,…a different flavor… I want to make sure the [intelligence] committee knows about this, rather than some abstract…legal threshold.” Since Hayden says the agency still hyperventilates around the word “assassination” (even though they have “the inherent right of self-defense”) he said the program was probably a mix of training and surveillance.

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