Americans should be disturbed by a report in The New York Times yesterday that the CIA, under the Bush administration, hired outside contractors for a secret program to find and kill top leaders in al-Qaida.
While Times sources said no terrorist suspects were captured or killed, the Obama administration has apparently ended the outsourcing with the security firm formerly known as Blackwater USA. New CIA Director Leon E. Panetta learned of the program, ended it in June and brought it to Congress' attention.
The Obama administration may have ended the outsourcing, but it has not stopped the attempted killings of Taliban and al-Qaida leaders by unmanned, remote-controlled drone aircraft. One reason given is that such a method of killing is more precise.
But it isn't. Innocent civilians have died in Afghanistan and Pakistan in efforts to terminate Taliban and al-Qaida figures, in the process sowing hatred against the United States among the people of those countries.
The other reason given for favoring remote-control killing is that assassins risk getting into trouble with local governments, particularly if caught.
The idea of hiring private contractors like Blackwater, now called Xe Services, to kill for the American government has to rank among the worst ideas of the Bush administration.
It raises a question of accountability. U.S. officials in the field will testify that trying to manage the activities of a private firm's hit team in the country of responsibility can be a bureaucratic nightmare, with potentially lethal results. Those results can become fatal for other Americans.
Who can say, for example, that the recent U.S. remote-control assassination of the top Taliban leader in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, will not bring retribution here at home? Mr. Mehsud had 30,000 forces under arms plus global reach. He was an enemy of the United States, but his death by no means puts the Taliban out of business.
It was folly, of course, to bring a private contractor, particularly one with the aggressive reputation of the former Blackwater, into the government's official assassination process. Let's hope it's truly over.
The only way to be sure is by conducting a thorough public investigation of the program. It is not sufficient that such an inquiry be carried out behind closed doors by Congress because one inevitable question will be, what did Congress know and when did it know it?