The CIA withheld information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress for eight years on direct orders from former vice president Dick Cheney, CIA Director Leon Panetta has told the Senate and House intelligence committees, two people with direct knowledge of the matter said on 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 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 law requires the president to make sure the intelligence committees “are kept fully and currently informed of the intelligence activities of the United States, including any significant anticipated intelligence activity.”
However, the language of the statute, the amended National Security Act of 1947, leaves some leeway. In addition, for covert action programs, a particularly secret category in which the role of the US is hidden, the law says that 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 program comes 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.
An intelligence agency spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, declined on 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.”
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