Secret Program Fuels CIA-Congress Dispute

Four months after he was sworn in, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta learned of an intelligence program that had been hidden from Congress since 2001, a revelation that prompted him to immediately cancel the initiative and schedule a pair of closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill.

The next day, June 24, Panetta informed the House and Senate intelligence committees of the program and the action he had taken, according to Democratic and Republican members of the panels.

The incident has reignited a long-running dispute between congressional Democrats and the CIA, with some calling it part of a broader pattern of the agency withholding information from Congress. Some Republicans, meanwhile, privately questioned whether Panetta — who has stood with CIA officers in a dispute with  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — was looking to score points with House Democrats.

The program remains classified, and those knowledgeable about it would describe it only vaguely yesterday. Several current and former administration officials called it an “on-again, off-again” attempt to create a new intelligence capability and said it was related to the collection of information on suspected terrorists that was instituted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Congressional Republicans said no briefing about the program was required because it was not a major tool used against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. They accused Democrats of using the matter to divert attention away from Pelosi’s accusation that CIA officials intentionally misled her in 2002 about the agency’s interrogations of suspected terrorists.

But Democrats waved away such claims and said they may open a congressional investigation of the concealment of the program.

“Instructions were given not to brief Congress,”  Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said in an interview.

Small details of the Panetta briefing emerged earlier this week when Democrats from the House intelligence committee leaked letters that had been privately sent to the CIA director and the bipartisan House leadership. The CIA declined to comment yesterday, pointing to the statement it made Wednesday after six Democrats sent their letter to Panetta accusing the CIA of having “concealed significant actions.”

“This agency and this director believe it is vital to keep the Congress fully and currently informed. Director Panetta’s actions back that up. As the letter from these six representatives notes, it was the CIA itself that took the initiative to notify the oversight committees,” agency spokesman George Little said.

Current and former administration officials familiar with the program said it was not directly related to previously disclosed high-priority programs such as detainee interrogations or the warrantless surveillance of suspected terrorists on U.S. soil. It was a intelligence-collection activity run by the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, officials said. It was not a covert action, which by law would have required a presidential finding and a report to Congress.

“This characterization of something that began in 2001 and continued uninterrupted for eight years is just wrong. Honest men would question that characterization. It was more off and on,” said a former top Bush administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the issue.

The official said he was certain that, if the nature of the program could be revealed, it would be seen as “no big deal.”

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.