Cheney linked to concealment of CIA project
Antiterror plan was kept secret under his orders
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 E. Panetta, has told the Senate and House intelligence committees, two people with direct knowledge of the matter said yesterday.
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 first 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.’’
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.
The disclosure about Cheney’s role in the unidentified CIA program was made a day after an inspector general’s report underscored the central role of the former vice president’s office in restricting to a small circle of officials knowledge of the National Security Agency’s program of eavesdropping without warrants, a degree of secrecy that the report concluded hurt the effectiveness of the counterterrorism surveillance effort.
Democrats in Congress, who contend that 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, and the proposal is now being negotiated by the White House and the intelligence committees.
A spokesman for the intelligence agency, Paul Gimigliano, declined yesterday 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 J. Tenet, who was director of central intelligence when the unidentified program began, declined to comment yesterday.
Intelligence and congressional officials have said the program was started by the counterterrorism center at the CIA shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but never became fully operational.