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Secret Program Fuels CIA-Congress Dispute
However, another intelligence official said that the program was "sensitive" and should have been briefed to the committees, and that lawmakers had been told they had been fully informed on collection activities.
CIA officials brought the program to Panetta's attention, and when he realized it potentially conflicted with what the committees had been told, he immediately went to Capitol Hill, according to officials who discussed classified material on the condition of anonymity.
Panetta has initiated an internal review of the matter.
Democrats this week cited the incident as a reason for approving a provision they have added to a bill, now under consideration, that would authorize intelligence activities for 2010 but forbid the administration from limiting briefings only to top congressional leaders and the four top lawmakers on the House and Senate committees.
The Obama White House, as the Bush administration previously had, has threatened to veto the intelligence authorization bill if that provision is attached, citing existing laws allowing the executive branch to conduct intelligence matters while limiting some highly sensitive information. House Democrats said yesterday they are negotiating a compromise to the standoff.
Reactions to the Panetta briefing split along partisan lines.
Republicans said Democrats were trying to find other instances of the CIA's misleading Congress to back up Pelosi's claim.
"They were looking for some political theater," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a member of the intelligence panel. He said Panetta came into the meeting "with his hair on fire" but, after a question-and-answer session, the issue seemed less serious.
"That particular program never quite got there. It was turned off," Rogers said.
But House Democrats, who have unanimously backed the speaker's assertions, exited the briefing ready to investigate.
"The full committee was stunned," said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (Calif.).
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (Tex.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, called Panetta "a stand-up guy."
Eshoo said the intelligence panels should investigate how and why the program was concealed from Congress. Rep. Rush D. Holt (N.J.) suggested "a major commission" or other entity to conduct a much broader investigation of intelligence practices. "A lot of people are trying to turn this into an inside-the-Beltway political matter," Holt said, emphasizing that the dispute goes to the heart of the intelligence committees' oversight function.
The former top Bush administration official rejected that view, saying that CIA officials kept nothing from Congress that should have been communicated.
President Obama has rejected calls from Democrats, led by Pelosi, to create a "truth commission" to investigate allegations of misconduct by Bush administration officials. The White House says such a body would foment a partisan battle.
Republicans have also opposed a commission but have supported an investigation by a special House panel to examine Pelosi's claims in May that CIA officials misled her about interrogations. They have accused the speaker of demeaning the nation's spies.
"I've worked closely with our intelligence professionals, and they are that -- professionals. And I do not believe that the CIA lied to Congress. I'm still waiting for Speaker Pelosi to either put up the facts or retract her statement and apologize," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) told reporters yesterday.
Staff writers Walter Pincus, Michael D. Shear and Joby Warrick and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.