Secret Program Fuels CIA-Congress Dispute
Friday, July 10, 2009
Four months after he was sworn in, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta learned of an intelligence program that had been hidden from Congress since 2001, a revelation that prompted him to immediately cancel the initiative and schedule a pair of closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill.
The next day, June 24, Panetta informed the House and Senate intelligence committees of the program and the action he had taken, according to Democratic and Republican members of the panels.
The incident has reignited a long-running dispute between congressional Democrats and the CIA, with some calling it part of a broader pattern of the agency withholding information from Congress. Some Republicans, meanwhile, privately questioned whether Panetta -- who has stood with CIA officers in a dispute with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- was looking to score points with House Democrats.
The program remains classified, and those knowledgeable about it would describe it only vaguely yesterday. Several current and former administration officials called it an "on-again, off-again" attempt to create a new intelligence capability and said it was related to the collection of information on suspected terrorists that was instituted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Congressional Republicans said no briefing about the program was required because it was not a major tool used against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. They accused Democrats of using the matter to divert attention away from Pelosi's accusation that CIA officials intentionally misled her in 2002 about the agency's interrogations of suspected terrorists.
But Democrats waved away such claims and said they may open a congressional investigation of the concealment of the program.
"Instructions were given not to brief Congress," Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said in an interview.
Small details of the Panetta briefing emerged earlier this week when Democrats from the House intelligence committee leaked letters that had been privately sent to the CIA director and the bipartisan House leadership. The CIA declined to comment yesterday, pointing to the statement it made Wednesday after six Democrats sent their letter to Panetta accusing the CIA of having "concealed significant actions."
"This agency and this director believe it is vital to keep the Congress fully and currently informed. Director Panetta's actions back that up. As the letter from these six representatives notes, it was the CIA itself that took the initiative to notify the oversight committees," agency spokesman George Little said.
Current and former administration officials familiar with the program said it was not directly related to previously disclosed high-priority programs such as detainee interrogations or the warrantless surveillance of suspected terrorists on U.S. soil. It was a intelligence-collection activity run by the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, officials said. It was not a covert action, which by law would have required a presidential finding and a report to Congress.
"This characterization of something that began in 2001 and continued uninterrupted for eight years is just wrong. Honest men would question that characterization. It was more off and on," said a former top Bush administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the issue.
The official said he was certain that, if the nature of the program could be revealed, it would be seen as "no big deal."