WASHINGTON -- Six months after he was appointed to the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Smith finds himself in the middle of a national security dispute over the failure of the CIA to notify Congress about a mysterious program to reportedly deploy special hit teams to assassinate senior al-Qaida leaders.
Calling it a "difficult" issue, but neither confirming nor denying the reported hit teams, the Washington Democrat said the CIA has a legal obligation to notify congressional intelligence committees of such programs so that Congress can carry out its oversight responsibilities.
"The CIA has a history of not telling us or lying," Smith said in an interview Tuesday. "There's been a longtime tension. I want to be supportive, but they need to tell us what is going on so we can exercise oversight."
CIA Director Leon Panetta informed the committees about the program three weeks ago and indicated it had been canceled.
Smith declined to discuss details of the classified program, but he indicated that the House Intelligence Committee should investigate why Congress was never notified. The committee on Tuesday asked the CIA to supply documents about the program.
The program was authorized nearly eight years ago by the Bush administration, but intelligence sources have told the Washington Post and the New York Times that it never became fully operational. The sources also said former Vice President Dick Cheney recommended that the CIA not notify Congress about the program because it could create diplomatic problems.
Unmanned armed aircraft, such as Predators, have been used to attack al-Qaida leaders, mostly in the troubled frontier areas of western Pakistan. Innocent civilians have been killed and injured in those attacks, causing outrage in Pakistan.
Reportedly launched shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the mystery program was purportedly designed to use assassins at close range to kill al-Qaida leaders.
Smith said he had no problem with attacking the terrorist leaders.
"We are doing it with Predator strikes," he said. "It's not like using exploding cigars, but it works."
Smith said al-Qaida declared war on the United States, and "when you are in a war you shoot back. Calling it assassination is not the point. Sometimes we have to shoot first."
The flare-up over the reported assassination program came just months after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted the CIA under the Bush administration had never briefed her about the use of waterboarding when interrogating terrorist suspects and amid indications that Attorney General Eric Holder was prepared to launch a formal investigation of whether the Bush White House approved the use of torture in questioning suspected terrorists.
Smith said there now needs to be a broad discussion of the CIA's responsibilities when it comes to notifying Congress.
"Obviously the CIA doesn't have to tell us everything they are doing every day," he said. "But there are certain operations they need to tell us about. This is an ongoing policy problem that needs to be resolved."