Former Vice President Dick Cheney is getting a "bum rap" over reports that he ordered the CIA to withhold information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress, two former U.S. intelligence officials told CNN Monday.
According to both officials, any intelligence program of “great sensitivity” is first approved by the White House after a series of meetings. In any such situation, once the administration decides to pursue a covert program, there is discussion on whether Congress needs to be briefed, the officials said. President George W. Bush “delegated” then-Vice President Cheney to chair many of the meetings that followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the officials said. At issue is CIA Director Leon Panetta’s testimony last month to a congressional committee that he was told Cheney ordered the intelligence agency to withhold information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California and chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told “Fox News Sunday” that Panetta testified “he was told that the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to the Congress.” “I think this is a problem, obviously,” Feinstein said, adding that the law requires full disclosure of such operations to Congress. The disclosure by Panetta to both the Senate and House intelligence committees about Cheney’s involvement was first reported in The New York Times.
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Efforts to contact Cheney for reaction were unsuccessful. Neither of the former officials who spoke to CNN would discuss the details of the program in question, but both said the CIA was developing a certain post-9/11 counterterrorism capacity. As one official put it, “It should come as no surprise that we would go after the bad guys, the terrorists.” Both sources said the program that Panetta discussed fell under a presidential finding that broadly authorized covert counterterrorism activities. They said Congress had been briefed on that finding in the fall of 2001, and there was no requirement to brief lawmakers on a program that had not been implemented. “When it goes operational, then you brief them,” one of the former officials said. The sources said the program was canceled several years ago — but for reasons unknown to them, it was put back on the table though still not implemented. Panetta terminated the program when he found out about it last month. Panetta briefed lawmakers on June 24 on an unspecified counterterrorism program, according to a letter from seven House Democrats to Panetta made public last Wednesday. The June 26 letter characterized Panetta as testifying that the CIA “concealed significant actions from all members of Congress, and misled members for a number of years from 2001 to this week.” The letter contained no details about what information the CIA officials allegedly concealed or how they purportedly misled members of Congress.