Report: Cheney ordered CIA
to hide info from Congress
By Scott Shane
The New York Times
The Central Intelligence Agency withheld information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress for eight years on direct orders from former Vice President Dick Cheney, the agency's director, Leon Panetta, has told the Senate and House intelligence committees, two people with knowledge of the matter said Saturday.
The report that Cheney was behind the decision to conceal the still-unidentified program from Congress deepened the mystery surrounding it, suggesting that the Bush administration had put a high priority on the program and its secrecy.
Panetta, who ended the program when he learned of its existence from subordinates on June 23, briefed the two intelligence committees about it in separate closed sessions the next day.
Efforts to reach Cheney through relatives and associates were unsuccessful.
The question of how completely the CIA informed Congress about sensitive programs has been hotly disputed by Democrats and Republicans since May, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the agency of failing to reveal in 2002 that it was waterboarding a terrorism suspect, an allegation Panetta denied.
The law requires the president to ensure the intelligence committees "are kept fully and currently informed of the intelligence activities of the United States, including any significant anticipated intelligence activity." But the language of the statute, the amended National Security Act of 1947, leaves some leeway for judgment, saying such briefings should be conducted "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."
Not "fully operational"
In addition, for covert-action programs, a particularly secret category in which the role of the United States is hidden, the law says briefings can be limited to the so-called Gang of Eight, consisting of the Republican and Democratic leaders of both houses of Congress and of their intelligence committees.
Democrats in Congress, who contend the covert action provision was abused to cover up programs under Bush, are seeking to change the law to permit the full committees to be briefed on more matters.
President Obama, however, has threatened to veto the intelligence authorization bill if the changes go too far.
A spokesman for the intelligence agency, Paul Gimigliano, declined Saturday to comment on the report of Cheney's role.
"It's not agency practice to discuss what may or may not have been said in a classified briefing," Gimigliano said. "When a CIA unit brought this matter to Director Panetta's attention, it was with the recommendation that it be shared appropriately with Congress. That was also his view, and he took swift, decisive action to put it into effect."
Bill Harlow, a spokesman for George Tenet, who was director of central intelligence when the unidentified program began, declined to comment Saturday, noting the program remains classified.
Intelligence and congressional officials have said the unidentified program did not involve the CIA interrogation program and did not involve domestic intelligence activities.
They have said the program was started by the counterterrorism center at the CIA shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but never became fully operational, involving planning and some training that took place sporadically from 2001 until this year.
"Because this program never went fully operational and hadn't been briefed as Panetta thought it should have been, his decision to kill it was neither difficult nor controversial," one intelligence official, who would speak about the classified program only on condition of anonymity. "That's worth remembering amid all the drama."
Members of Congress have differed on the significance of the program, whose details remain secret. Most of those interviewed, however, have said that it was an important activity they felt should have been disclosed.
In the eight years of his vice presidency, Cheney was the Bush administration's most vehement defender of the secrecy of government activities, particularly in the intelligence arena. He went to the Supreme Court to keep secret the advisers to his task force on energy and won.
A report released on Friday by the inspectors general of five agencies about the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program makes clear Cheney's former chief of staff, David Addington, had to approve every government official who was told about the program. The report said "the exceptionally compartmented nature of the program" frustrated FBI agents who were assigned to follow up on tips it turned up.
High-level NSA officials who were responsible for ensuring the surveillance program was legal, including the agency's inspector general and general counsel, were not permitted by Cheney's office to read the Justice Department opinion that found the eavesdropping legal, several officials said.
Addington could not be reached for comment Saturday.
Questions over the adequacy and truthfulness of the CIA's briefings for Congress date back to the creation of the intelligence oversight committees in the 1970s after disclosures of agency assassination and mind-control programs and other abuses. But complaints increased in the Bush years, when the CIA and other intelligence agencies took the major role in pursuing al-Qaida.
The use of harsh interrogation methods, including waterboarding, for instance, was first described to a handful of lawmakers in September 2002.
Pelosi and CIA officials have disagreed about what she was told, but in any case, the briefing occurred after a terrorism suspect, Abu Zubaydah, had been waterboarded 83 times.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a member of the House intelligence committee, wrote Friday to the chairman, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, to demand an investigation of the unidentified program and why Congress was not told of it. Aides said Reyes was reviewing the matter.
"There's been a history of difficulty in getting the CIA to tell us what they should," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma. "We will absolutely be held accountable for anything the agency does."
Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the committee's top Republican, said he would not judge the agency harshly in the case of the unidentified program because it was not fully operational. But he said that, in general, the agency has not been as forthcoming as the law requires.
"We have to pull the information out of them to get what we need," Hoekstra said.