CIA hired private contractors to take part in its al-Qaida assassination program.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Aug. 20 2009 6:35 AM

Assassination Inc.

The New York Timesleads with word that the CIA hired contractors from Blackwater USA to take part in an assassination program that targeted top al-Qaida operatives. Blackwater is a private security contractor, now known as Xe Services LLC, that has come under scrutiny for using excessive force against Iraqi civilians. The Washington Postalso leads the news in its late edition, and while it gives credit to the NYT for first reporting the story, it takes it a step further by saying that the whole of the assassination program was outsourced to Blackwater in 2004 and the private contractor was given "operational responsibility for targeting terrorist commanders." For its part, the NYT isn't clear as to whether the contractors were going to be used to kill or capture al-Qaida suspects or just for training and surveillance in the larger program. Regardless, the program was canceled before any missions were actually carried out.

The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsboxlead with, and everyone else fronts, the deadly day in Baghdad, in which a series of coordinated attacks killed 95 people and injured more than 500. Most of the dead were casualties of the two massive truck bombs that hit the foreign and finance ministries in heavily guarded areas of downtown Baghdad. It was by far the deadliest attack since June 30, when U.S. troops withdrew from urban areas, and the WSJ says it might have been the deadliest day in Iraq in more than a year. The Iraqi government quickly blamed al-Qaida in Iraq and followers of former President Saddam Hussein for the attack.

The NYT says that one of the main reasons why Leon Panetta, CIA's director, informed Congress of the agency's assassination program was that he found out about the involvement of the private contractor. The Post explains that the program itself was launched in 2001, but it was revived under a different code name in 2004 using the outside contractor. The NYT states that while the CIA has used private contractors for a variety of controversial efforts, including interrogation, many were uncomfortable about using a private company for assassination-related work. Au contraire, says the Post, it was precisely because they were using a private contractor that the CIA allowed itself to restart the once-moribund program. "Outsourcing gave the agency more protection in case something went wrong," a source tells the paper.

The NYT says that Blackwater's involvement in the assassination program ended years before Panetta informed Congress because senior CIA officials were concerned about using private contractors for such a purpose. But interestingly enough, the paper says there was no actual contract with Blackwater for the program, but rather, the CIA had "individual agreements" with top officials from the company, which makes the whole thing even stranger. The WP's sources say the effort, known as a "targeted killing" program, was meant to be expanded to other countries beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. There were apparently three versions of the program over eight years, each with a separate code name. In total, the agency spent "well under $20 million" throughout the eight years, says the Post. But, as has been reported before, the program never really got past the training stage. "We never actually did anything," said a former official.

While much of the attention about Iraqi violence has recently focused on conflicts between Kurds and Arabs in the country's north, the blasts in Baghdad served as a grim reminder that the old sectarian conflict is far from over. The NYT describes a scene of frustrated U.S. troops who couldn't get involved to help deal with the aftermath because they now have to wait for requests from the Iraqi government, which "apparently never came." USAT, however, says U.S. servicemembers were hardly sitting on their hands. While they may not have taken control of the bombing scenes, they did help guide rescue crews and provided intelligence.

The LAT notes that while some recent attacks targeted Shiite civilians in what seemed to be a brazen attempt to restart a sectarian war, these latest attacks "seemed designed to send the message that [Prime Minister] Maliki is failing to protect even his own government's facilities." Indeed, Maliki said the attacks were "a vengeful response" to his recent optimism that led to ordering the removal of the blast walls that were once a common sight in Baghdad's streets. The barrier protecting the Foreign Ministry was recently removed.  Iraqi officials were quick to recognize that the attacks demonstrate how far they still have to go in order to effectively protect the population from terrorist threats. "The criminal attacks that happened today require without a doubt a reevaluation of our security plans and mechanisms to face terrorist challenges," Maliki said.

In an interview with the WP, Sen. Charles Grassley, the key Republican in the health care negotiations of the Senate finance committee, seems to suggest that he makes his governing decisions based on who screams the loudest. The anger expressed in the town-hall-style meetings this month has convinced him that the government needs to scale back its overhaul efforts. Those who want to reform the system are "not quite as loud as people that say we ought to slow down or don't do anything," he said. "And I've got to listen to my people." He insists he still wants to reach a bipartisan agreement but that legislation needs to be smaller and cheaper since there is great concern over the national debt, considering how much money has been spent to prop up the economy.

The WSJ fronts word that Senate Democrats are in discussion with administration officials about breaking the health care legislation into two parts. Seeing little chance of bipartisan support, key Democrats are thinking about passing the most expensive provisions of the health care bill only with votes from members of their own party. They hope this will help get a bill to Obama before the end of the year. Certain budget-related measures can pass in the Senate with 51 votes, rather than 60 as is usually the norm, through a procedure known as reconciliation. Recently Democrats have come to the conclusion they could use this tactic for a big chunk of their health care plan, perhaps even the "public option"—the government-run insurance plan—but no one is quite sure yet. Then other parts of the legislation that are seen as less controversial, such as forbidding insurers from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, would more comfortably get the 60 votes.

Democrats say there's now a 60 percent chance the two-bill tactic will be used, although it's unclear who's running up the odds on Capitol Hill. In an interesting tidbit, a senior Democratic aide tells the paper that the statement by Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that led to all the outrage when she suggested the public option wasn't essential was all part of a strategy to see how Republicans would respond. The fact that several key Republicans dismissed the suggestion as mere theatrics and refused to get behind the idea of nonprofit insurance cooperatives told Democrats that it would be nearly impossible to reach bipartisan consensus.

The WP reports that the White House is making progress in its quest to find new homes for Guantanamo detainees who have been cleared for release. So far, six European Union countries have agreed to take detainees, while four others have told the administration privately they want to help. In addition, five EU countries said they're considering it, and the White House plans to expand the search to other nations around the world. Still at question is the fate of 98 Yemenis, whom the United States wants Saudi Arabia to take. Many lawmakers are vehemently opposed to bringing detainees to the United States, and while administration officials thought that would make it more difficult to convince other countries to take them in, it hasn't been as bad as many anticipated. "Obama has a lot of political capital," explained a senior official. "Countries want to do something for him."

The LAT fronts, and everyone covers, the death of Don Hewitt, who, as creator of 60 Minutes, changed the face of television journalism. In 1960, he made the medium an essential part of politics when he produced and directed the first debate between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. He spent his career at CBS News and will be most remembered as creator and executive producer of 60 Minutes, the show that launched the TV newsmagazine genre, using a formula that combined journalism and show business that would later be copied numerous times. It became a top-rated TV program and showed that news could make money at a fraction of the cost of scripted programming. Later, that would become the formula for programs that would skew heavily toward entertainment news and prized sensationalism above all else. He was 86.

The WP catches up with the child stars of the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, which "has been a roller coaster of personal tragedy and red-carpet glamour." Azhar Mohammed Ismaill, 11, recently moved into a two-room apartment bought by the film's director. But his co-star, Rubina Ali, 9, still lives in a shack next to an open sewer. The two may be "experiencing at warp speed the masala of euphoria and turmoil that India's vast poor feel as they emerge from the iron bonds of caste and class," writes Emily Wax. But at the same time, their diverging fortunes also tell "the story of an India where some are forging ahead while others struggle and worry they will be left behind."

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