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Democrats May Investigate Secret Program

CIA Director Leon Panetta alerted lawmakers about the secret program at closed-door briefings for the House and Senate intelligence committees.
CIA Director Leon Panetta alerted lawmakers about the secret program at closed-door briefings for the House and Senate intelligence committees. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Kane and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 12, 2009

House Democrats said yesterday that they expect to launch a formal investigation into a secret CIA program that was not disclosed to Congress for almost eight years, a probe that could entangle senior Bush administration officials who oversaw intelligence issues.

Democrats on the House intelligence committee said the inquiry would examine both the nature of the still-secret program and the decisions to keep congressional oversight committees in the dark about its existence.

"This wasn't an oversight. There was an order given to not inform Congress," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), chairman of the panel's oversight and investigations subcommittee.

Lawmakers learned of the program from CIA Director Leon Panetta at closed-door briefings June 24 for the House and Senate intelligence committees. The day before, CIA officials informed Panetta of the program and told him Congress had not been briefed. He then canceled it.

The New York Times, on its Web site, reported yesterday that Panetta has told the committees that Vice President Richard B. Cheney gave the order to keep the information from Congress. The newspaper cited unnamed sources.

In an interview last night with The Washington Post, an intelligence official said it was "generally known" from the beginning that Cheney had requested that the program be kept from Congress. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was unclear whether the agency was obligated to brief Congress.

During the second half of the Bush administration, CIA officials did not consult with the administration about the program or take orders from Cheney to keep it secret, according to former agency officials who held senior posts at the time.

"We never briefed the vice president, the president or the Cabinet," said a former senior intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the program remains highly secret. He said the program remained in the planning stages and never crossed the agency's threshold for reporting to the administration and congressional overseers.

Congress and the CIA have jousted for decades over the interpretation of the 1947 law creating the agency, which included a provision mandating that the committees be kept "fully and currently informed" of intelligence issues. Even for covert actions, lawmakers on the committees generally must be notified.

But the law also says such briefings should be done "to the extent consistent with due regard for the protection from unauthorized disclosure of classified information relating to sensitive intelligence sources and methods or other exceptionally sensitive matters."

Cheney's current spokeswoman did not respond to an e-mail last night seeking comment.

Congressional Republicans have rejected the call for an investigation and said the program did not rise to the level of requiring a briefing for the congressional committees. They also have suggested that Democrats were using the issue as a way to back up House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's assertion that the CIA had intentionally misled her in 2002 regarding an unrelated program for harsh interrogations of alleged terrorists.


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