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.
After listening to Panetta's June 24 presentation, some Republican committee members said they wanted to know more about the program but were not overly alarmed. "I didn't walk out of there saying this is some horrible thing," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said.
Schakowsky, who declined to comment on Cheney's role, said lawmakers have learned that the program was started shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and that the orders about who was to be informed about its existence were given at that time. "That's when the parameters were all laid out," she said.
Two former agency officials who were familiar with the program said it involved a series of proposals over several years for providing the intelligence agencies with a "needed capability," one of the officials said. The latest proposal was aired in the spring of 2008 but was not carried out, the officials said. The program did not involve interrogations of detainees or surveillance of U.S.-based communications, they said.
Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, said it was "not agency practice to discuss what may or may not have been said in a classified briefing." Gimigliano said in a statement that agency officials brought the program to Panetta with the recommendation that he go to Capitol Hill with the information.
"That was also his view, and he took swift, decisive action to put it into effect," he said.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), chairman of the intelligence committee, has said the panel was "affirmatively lied to" regarding this program's existence. Reyes had not had a formal discussion with Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the committee, about opening a formal investigation. But lawmakers and aides said such a step was a formality and that a formal investigation probably would take place.
Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), a senior member of the intelligence panel, said she was calling for the committee to hire an outside counsel to investigate the issue. "We have to know who gave the order for this, who gave the order to conceal this, where did they draw the money for this," she said.
Eshoo said the committee may have to use its subpoena power to interview some of the top officials who oversaw intelligence issues during the Bush administration.