Top Bush administration officials, including former CIA Director George J. Tenet and former Vice President Dick Cheney, opted not to brief Congress on a secret program belatedly disclosed to Congress last month by CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, according to an intelligence official with direct knowledge of the program.
The official, who asked not to be named because of the classified nature of the program, said that the decision to keep the details of the program secret in the past was made in part because the program remained “in the capability stage,” meaning it had been developed but not necessarily implemented.
“These activities lasted, if you will, for years,” this official said. “There were other conversations about whether this should be taken to Congress. The same decision was made again by senior officials at the time.”
The New York Times first reported on its Web site Saturday that the program was concealed from Congress at the direction of Mr. Cheney, who was and remains a strong proponent of harsh measures to prevent terrorist attacks. The Associated Press, quoting an unnamed source, reported that Mr. Cheney had directed the CIA not to inform Congress about the program.
An official told The Washington Times that Mr. Cheney “was one official out of a select few who was aware of the program.” Mr. Tenet was another, he said.
The exact nature of the program remains a mystery. This official hinted that the secret program involved assassinations overseas but declined to provide further details.
Another intelligence official, who also spoke on the condition that he not be named, said the classified program was known as an SAP, or special access program.
SAPs are intelligence activities that are so secret that even officers with the highest intelligence clearances do not know about them, and their access is reserved for only the most senior officials and officers directly working on the activities.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano declined to comment on the program.
“We have not commented on the substance of what this was,” he said.
Efforts to reach the former vice president and Mr. Tenet on Saturday were not successful.
Mr. Panetta, upon learning of the program’s existence on June 23, immediately ordered it ended and briefed intelligence committees about it on June 24.
Several Democrats have said that under U.S. law, the CIA is required to brief Congress about programs even if they have not been implemented.
A senior congressional Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said, “The National Security Act of 1947 requires reporting not just of intelligence activities, but also anticipated intelligence activities. There is no law or exemption anywhere that says if you already have the statutory authority you do not have to inform Congress of intelligence activities.”
In a letter to Mr. Panetta dated June 26, seven Democrats said the new CIA chief had acknowledged in his June 24 briefing that CIA officials during the Bush administration misled Congress about activities carried out after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Republicans have countered that Congress was adequately briefed.
A third intelligence official who spoke on the condition that he not be named told The Washington Times on Thursday that Mr. Panetta, a former congressman from California, “took decisive steps to inform the oversight committees of something that hadn’t been appropriately briefed in the past. He didn’t attribute motives to that. He wasn’t director at the time.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, has accused the CIA of lying to her and said she was never told that several terrorist suspects were being subjected to a harsh interrogation technique known as waterboarding.
Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.