Senators on both sides of the aisle on Sunday said lawmakers should have been briefed about a sensitive national security program that reportedly was concealed for eight years, but Republicans warned that continued scrutiny could undermine the U.S. war effort.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Sunday that CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told lawmakers last month about the program, developed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which he said was kept secret under direct orders from Vice President Dick Cheney.
Mr. Panetta “indicated that he had canceled it,” the California Democrat said, adding that concealing the program from Congress raises questions about its legality, a judgment that other Democrats seconded emphatically.
“We should have been briefed before the commencement of this kind of sensitive program,” Mrs. Feinstein said on “Fox News Sunday.” “This is a big problem because the law is very clear. … That’s something that should never, ever happen again.”
Mr. Cheney’s involvement was first reported Saturday by the New York Times. Details of the program in question are not known, but a report by The Washington Times said it remained in the “capability stage,” meaning it had been developed but not necessarily implemented.
An intelligence official told The Times that it was a “special access program” - 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 working directly on the activities.
Mrs. Feinstein said congressional intelligence panels should have been briefed on the program’s existence so that lawmakers could have vetted it.
“I think you weaken your case when you go outside of the law,” she said, referring to a 1947 law governing briefings to Congress.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said lawmakers should investigate why the classified program was kept from Capitol Hill.
“To have a massive program that is concealed from the leaders in Congress is not only inappropriate, it could be illegal,” Mr. Durbin said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat and chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on oversight and investigations, has called for an investigation of the revelation.
“The systematic deception by the CIA is a possible violation of the National Security Act and, at a minimum, a blatant disregard of this committee’s oversight authority,” she said in a letter Friday to Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “I strongly urge you to promptly launch an investigation into this critical matter.”
Republicans were more circumspect Sunday. Sen. John McCain of Arizona said it was too early to tell whether the matter warrants an investigation.
“The vice president, I think, should obviously be heard from if the accusations are leveled in his direction,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, said the CIA’s concealment of information from Congress was “wrong,” but he warned about creating a chilling effect at the agency.
“Yes, this is wrong. If somebody told the CIA not to inform the appropriate members of Congress on information they should be informed on, that’s wrong, but that isn’t reason to disassemble the CIA and make them a whipping child in the middle of the public opinion, which undermines the morale of the whole agency,” Mr. Gregg said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The latest wrinkle follows a lingering controversy over a claim by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, that the CIA lied to her in a September 2002 briefing on harsh interrogation tactics. Republicans on Sunday questioned whether revelations about Mr. Cheney’s involvement are a means of protecting Mrs. Pelosi from further scrutiny.
It “looks to me suspiciously like an attempt to provide political cover,” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday.”