WASHINGTON (CNN) — The CIA withheld information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress during the Bush administration on direct orders from then-Vice President Dick Cheney, current CIA director Leon Panetta told members of Congress, a knowledgeable source confirmed to CNN.
The disclosure to the House and Senate intelligence committees about Cheney’s involvement by Panetta was first reported in the New York Times. Efforts to contact Cheney for reaction were unsuccessful late Saturday.
The source who spoke to CNN did not want to be identified by name because the matter is classified, and CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano declined comment on the report.
“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 with Congress. That was also his view, and he took swift, decisive action to put it into effect.”
The fact that Panetta recently briefed lawmakers on an unspecified counterterrorism program was first revealed Wednesday, when a letter from seven House Democrats to Panetta was made public. The June 26 letter characterizes 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.
A knowledgeable source familiar with the matter said the counterterrorism program in question was initiated shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
The program was on-again, off-again and was never fully operational, but was rather, a tool put on the shelf that could have been used, the source said. Panetta has put an end to the program, according to the source.
The disclosures follow a May spat between the spy agency and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who accused the CIA of misleading Congress during a secret 2002 briefing on harsh interrogation techniques being used on terrorism suspects. The CIA responded that Pelosi was told about the harsh techniques, including waterboarding, at the briefing.
However, the June 26 letter from the seven House Democrats noted that Panetta told CIA employees in a May 15 letter — a response to the Pelosi allegation — that it was not CIA policy to mislead Congress. The letter from the House Democrats asked Panetta to correct his May 15 statement “in light of your testimony.”
Asked about the Democrats’ letter, CIA spokesman George Little said Panetta “stands by his May 15 statement.”
“This agency and this director believe it is vital to keep the Congress fully and currently informed. Director Panetta’s actions back that up,” Little said in a statement. “As the letter from these … representatives notes, it was the CIA itself that took the initiative to notify the oversight committees.”
The latest revelations come as lawmakers consider expanding the number of House and Senate members privy to the kind of secret briefing that Pelosi received.
The White House opposes a measure that would increase the number of briefing participants from the current eight to 40 members of Congress. A White House memo warned President Obama’s senior advisers would recommend a veto of the bill if it contained the expanded briefing provision.
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