Commentary: Citizens deserve accountability in secret CIA operations

Upon learning that the CIA had a secret program to assassinate terrorist Osama bin Laden, most Americans would ask only one question: Why did it fail?

In Washington, however, the question is not effectiveness, but legality. The plan to kill bin Laden has gotten caught up in the larger debate over government secrecy and whether the Bush administration crossed the line in failing to inform Congress, as the law requires.

To no one's surprise, former Vice President Dick Cheney is at the center of this controversy. CIA Director Leon Panetta has told Congress that Mr. Cheney explicitly ordered the CIA to keep lawmakers in the dark. The CIA director says he just learned of it himself, and promptly quashed it.

The story is unfolding in chapters, like a serial mystery with an unknown ending.

The first tantalizing reports said a secret CIA plan to stop terrorism was deliberately hidden from Congress. Then the Wall Street Journal disclosed the nature of the project. Then it was learned that the plan was never implemented.

But wait — the next round of stories said former CIA Director George Tenet killed the plan in 2004 because he could "not work out the practical details to put it into use." The next revelation was that Mr. Tenet's successor, Porter Goss, resurrected the plan.

The latest twist came with a report that the project was sensitive because it aimed to create a CIA capability to kill or capture al Qaeda operatives in friendly countries. Public disclosure, it was feared, would provoke an awful diplomatic row with U.S. allies.

One might be tempted to dismiss this as a silly Washington fuss, something to do with the dreadful summer heat that afflicts the nation's capital, but the nagging legal issues can't be ignored.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Miami Herald.