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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Contemplates Freeing Up the CIA

WASHINGTON -- The congressional leaders who oversee the country's intelligence system have concluded that America's spy agencies should be allowed to combat terrorism with more aggressive tactics, including the hiring of unsavory foreign agents.

The attacks in the United States have also revived discussion of reversing the 25-year ban on using covert agents to assassinate foreigners. A consensus has not been reached on this point.

But after the attacks, the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and two former directors of central intelligence said the attacks justified easing some restrictions on the behavior of spy agencies. Some of these leaders also said the terrorist assault represented a colossal failure of U.S. intelligence.

R. James Woolsey, a former CIA director, said that "Washington has absolutely undergone a sea change in thinking this week."

These comments reflect a turning point in the attitude of political leaders toward the need for allowing American agents to carry out the kinds of actions that have long been prohibited as too ruthless or morally questionable.

They also reflect a strong public sentiment for a powerful, and prolonged assault on the terrorist organizations responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in New York and Washington, and others like them. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted late last week showed that 65 percent of those questioned say American agents should be allowed to seek out and assassinate people in foreign countries who commit terrorist acts against Americans.

For the moment, the CIA is not pressing Congress or the White House to change its rules. Administration officials said they understood that for many Americans the ban on assassinations was a significant symbol of the nation's role as a standard-bearer of ethical conduct.

But the public discussion among influential members of Congress about freeing the CIA from restrictions on the recruitment of criminals and known abusers of human rights as informants and about outlaw assassinations stems from a growing debate over the causes of what many in Washington are now calling the nation's biggest intelligence lapse since the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

In the 25 years since congressional hearings disclosed the agency's role in assassinations and dirty tricks overseas, the government has imposed increasingly tighter rules and congressional oversight of the conduct of America's spies. CIA officers, for example, are not permitted to foster a plot that has the explicit goal of killing a terrorist leader.

But congressional leaders said the CIA should be put on a war footing and given the freedom not only to penetrate but also to destroy tightly knit terrorist organizations.

"Not everybody is playing by Marquess of Queensberry rules," said Representative J. Porter Goss, a Republican who is chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, when asked if he would support an end to the ban on assassinations of foreign leaders, first imposed by President Gerald Ford in 1976.

Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is now willing to end limits on the CIA's recruitment of agents -- spies -- who have committed human rights violations, his spokesman said Friday.

But one influential lawmaker warned that proposals to unleash intelligence agencies should be carefully considered.

Representative Tom DeLay, the majority whip, said that while the CIA should beef up its human intelligence gathering capability, officials should not move rashly to lift the ban on assassinations.

The nation is understandably "a little panicky," DeLay said. But he added, "I think we need to be very clearheaded, very deliberative, about where we're headed."

Tighter restrictions on whom the CIA can recruit as spies were imposed in the mid-1990s after it was disclosed that the agency had ties to a Guatemalan army officer implicated in the killing of an American and the husband of another American. Although it is unclear whether the guidelines have ever really undercut the CIA's operations against terrorist organizations, the agency's officers have complained in the past that the rules were symbolic of a broader caution that took hold at the agency in the 1990s, when managers rejected high-risk operations for fear they would fail or lead to political scandal.

Graham said immediately after Tuesday's attacks that he was also willing to reassess the assassination ban. Paul Anderson, the senator's spokesman, said Graham had since modified his stance, but only because he had been told by experts that the United States could get around the ban if it chose to do so, even with the current legal strictures.

The militant attitude in Congress comes just weeks after some U.S. leaders were sharply critical of Israel's use of assassinations of Palestinian leaders in response to a series of suicide bombings against Israeli targets. But after Tuesday some current and former officials said that U.S. security services might need to adopt some elements of the Israeli approach.

"We've never had the political will and the resolve to treat terrorism as a real foe," observed Ted Price, a former deputy director of operations at the CIA. "But now we're at war."