Slate published a potentially-interesting article asking 6 of the "Most Important Questions...About the CIA's Targeted Killing Program". I label it "potentially" interesting because it appears, to me, to have a gaping blind spot, ignoring the most obvious and "important" question of all. It's one that almost all the coverage of the story that I've seen seems to ignore, as well (although to be fair, I haven't had the time to read a ton about this yet, so maybe this is getting asked somewhere.)
But not only does it fail to ask the question, it goes so far as to note that the answer is obvious to "even the daftest political observers". I suppose being called "daft" by Slate is a badge of honor, but I'd prefer it if they actually addressed the question, rather than assuming its irrelevance.
The question in question is, "Why is this a big deal?"
Note that this isn't the same as asking, "Was this program illegal?" I think it probably was basically illegal, but the CIA does illegal stuff all the time. In fact, it has a whole branch of operators whose entire purpose is to perform tasks in such a way that the United States can't be identified as behind them. Sure, sometimes there are political and not legal reasons for that, but you'd have to be totally insane to think that everything the CIA did, while attempting to be as covert as possible about it, was ok under national or international law.
But getting back to the original question, why wouldn't this be a big deal? Well, for starters, because we already do this openly! Predator drones launch missiles targeted at individual al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan all the time! If the only difference between that program and this one is that this one is done with bullets instead of missiles, by people on the ground instead of in a trailer in Nevada, well, it's hard to see what the big deal is. And so far, that appears to be the only difference.
Why is this relevant? Well, the whole reason this story is blowing up right now is because VP Cheney allegedly ordered the CIA not to disclose the very existence of this program to Congress. Now, that is flagrantly and obviously illegal, even to a guy accustomed to shooting his friends in the face with a shotgun, and I don't think he would've done that to protect a program that was so minimally different from what we already openly acknowledge doing, and that was never even operational. Not to mention, I find it hard to believe that such a program would, upon discovery by CIA Director Panetta, be shut down immediately and rushed into a briefing to Congress the very next day.
So what else don't we know about this program? Because this can't be everything.