Cia Program Kept From Hill

Sources Say Cheney Directed That Counterterrorism Effort Be Kept Secret From Congress

July 12, 2009|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON - -The CIA kept a highly classified counterterrorism program secret from Congress for eight years at the direction of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, according to sources familiar with an account that agency director Leon Panetta provided recently to House and Senate committees.

The sources declined to provide any details on the nature of the program, but said that the agency has opened an internal inquiry in recent days into the history of the program and the decisions made by a series of senior officials to withhold information about it from Congress.

Cheney's involvement suggests that the program was considered important enough by the Bush administration that it should be monitored at the highest levels of government, and that the White House was reluctant to risk disclosure of its details to lawmakers.

Panetta killed the program June 23 after apparently learning of it for the first time four months after he became CIA director. He then called special sessions with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

The CIA's relationship with Congress has become a source of controversy in Washington in recent months, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, accused the agency of lying to members about its use of water-boarding and other harsh interrogation measures after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The secret counterterrorism program was put in place shortly after those attacks but was never fully operational, sources said. Current and former intelligence and congressional officials have offered different viewpoints on the program's significance.

A senior congressional aide said the magnitude of the program and the decision to keep it secret should not be played down. "Panetta found out about this for the first time and within 24 hours was in the office telling us," the aide said. "If this wasn't a big deal, why would the director of the CIA come sprinting up to the hill like that."

An aide to Cheney did not respond to a request for comment.

By law, the CIA is required to make sure that congressional committees are "kept fully and currently informed of the intelligence activities of the United States, including any significant anticipated intelligence activity." But there is latitude in the language for programs and operations deemed extremely sensitive, or those that might be considered routine. Former U.S. intelligence officials said that Panetta's predecessors, including retired Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, did not feel they were constrained from informing Congress about the program, but regarded the activity as falling well short of the threshold for congressional notification.

"We do a lot of foreign intelligence collection. We don't run down to the Hill and say, 'How about this?' " said a former U.S. intelligence official familiar with the program, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

More than a year ago, however, Hayden told subordinates that the intelligence committees would have to be briefed if the program crossed certain thresholds, according to former officials.

The key issue, the officials said, was whether the agency was taking steps in its implementation of the program that could be discovered by foreign intelligence services and might therefore surface publicly to the embarrassment of the United States.

The program was coming "closer to [being] something in the real world" when Hayden issued the guidance, one former official said. But the activity never reached that point. Hayden was among a number of high-level CIA officials, including Deputy Director Stephen Kappes and the head of the clandestine service, Michael Sulick, who were kept apprised of the program's progress.

One former official said that Hayden, Kappes and Sulick were "very cautious" in their handling of the program and that they made decisions to narrow its focus.

The official said the program fell between foreign intelligence collection and covert action - the latter involves taking steps to influence events overseas, and generally falls within more stringent congressional notification rules.

Some former high-level CIA officials said they are puzzled about which program could be at the center of the budding controversy.

"A lot of people thought they were Jason Bourne and came up with ideas," said a former senior CIA officer. "There were programs that were kind of wild that were considered in 2001. But to my knowledge, within six months, we didn't get one follow-on attack and people kind of gave up on those ideas."

The House Intelligence Committee has approved new legislation that would make it significantly more difficult for the executive branch to withhold information on intelligence activities from Congress. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the legislation.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano declined to comment Saturday on the program or on Cheney's role, which was initially reported by The New York Times.

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