House Intelligence Members Warring Over CIA Program

Posted July 10, 2009 at 1:26pm

Members of the House Intelligence Committee on Friday painted vastly different pictures of how, if it all, the CIA broke the law by concealing a secret information-collecting program from Congress for years. The committee first got wind of the program in late June, when CIA Director Leon Panetta dropped a bombshell: In his first appearance before the panel, he testified that his agency has repeatedly concealed information and misled lawmakers since 2001.Panetta, then four months into his tenure as CIA director, said he learned about the program the day before coming to the committee and immediately shut it down.Details of the classified program remain murky, although Intelligence members on Friday confirmed some details: The program was related to the collection of information on suspected terrorists and was instituted shortly after 9/11.And, according to at least one committee Democrat, someone outside the CIA directed the agency not to inform Congress about it.Beyond that, however, lawmakers have different takes on whether the program was ever executed or whether the CIA broke the law by not informing Congress about it.One committee Republican said the CIA “got pretty close to where it could have been implemented but never implemented the program. They never did anything except plan and maybe begin to put some kind of system in place, but never implemented the program.—Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), an Intelligence member, said the CIA didn’t do anything wrong and that an investigation is not warranted.“They’re accused of not telling Congress that they’re thinking of doing something they never did,— Blunt said. “I hope they’re thinking about lots of things that never get to the implementation stage.—But Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a close personal ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a committee member, said it was “a total mischaracterization of what we were briefed— to say the program was never executed. The program was “operational from 2001 to June 2009,— she said, and it is “ludicrous— to say the CIA didn’t need to tell Congress about it.“The National Security Act directs the executive branch to fully and completely inform the Congress through the Intelligence Committee. … This is not pick and choose. When you read the National Security Act, it doesn’t say, When you feel like it, inform the Congress,— Eshoo said.Eshoo said the danger of the CIA keeping secrets from the committee is that “the policy that we shape will inevitably be lacking because we won’t be dealing with the full set of cards.—“In this instance, it was something that we should have been told. And when an inquiry was made [about the program], they were saying, No, that never happened,’— Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said.Eshoo and Hastings were among the seven Intelligence Democrats who published a June 26 letter to Panetta highlighting his testimony that the CIA has repeatedly misled lawmakers. Hastings dismissed the idea that the letter was meant to support Pelosi, who came under fire in May for accusing the CIA of lying to her about its use of harsh interrogation tactics under the Bush administration. Pelosi has continued to beat back attacks from the GOP about her allegations.Despite some Republicans saying Democrats who signed the letter are “Nancy Pelosi’s puppets,— Hastings said he and Pelosi “have a totally different political calculus— and he signed the letter because it gave “information that was not classified that needed to be made public.—Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) is mulling a committee investigation into whether the CIA broke the law and has already begun collecting documents from Panetta. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, sent a letter to Reyes on Friday urging him to speed up the process and get the investigation under way.“It is a very serious program with very serious international implications. The fact that the director of the CIA found out months into his tenure and immediately canceled it should tell you something,— Reyes said.He chided Intelligence ranking member Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) and other Republicans for saying the program was not operational and therefore not worth the attention of Congress. “As chairman of the committee, I know that they know better,— he said.Debate over the CIA program comes as the House gears up to debate the intelligence authorization bill, which includes a provision to expand the number of lawmakers privy to information in private intelligence briefings. The bill was originally expected to surface on Thursday but was postponed. Reyes is in the midst of negotiations with the Obama administration over the provision, which the president opposes. Obama has threatened to veto the bill because it could imperil national security. Reyes said an agreement has yet to be reached on the provision, but he “absolutely— expects it to be hashed out in conference, when the Senate and administration officials are at the table.Eshoo said it makes sense to allow all members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees to have access to private briefings since they all have the same security clearance.“God help anyone that ever leaks or puts out any of this classified information. But when over 1,000 people in the executive branch have that information and I’m a member of the Intelligence Committee and I’m in the dark, I mean, go figure. It doesn’t make sense,— Eshoo said.