Intel Probes May Yet Turn to Cheney

Posted July 15, 2009 at 6:45pm

Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration may end up uncovering more provocative information about then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s management of secret anti-terrorism programs, even though they say they are trying not to jump to conclusions in the multiple probes of Bush-era intelligence activities.

Since the beginning of this year, Democrats on Capitol Hill have been trying to adhere to President Barack Obama’s directive to “look forward and not backward— by having a narrow focus in their investigations of potential misdeeds during the previous administration’s war on terror.

But the revelation this week that Cheney may have directed the CIA to keep Congress in the dark on a program to assassinate terrorist masterminds has many saying their desire for information, along with the potential appointment of a special prosecutor for torture allegations, could lead them in a direction they had previously sought to avoid.

“Here’s the problem we face: We can’t have these things hit us right between the eyes and act like they don’t exist,— Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Wednesday. “You know, if we are truly dealing with a covert program that was intentionally concealed from Congress at the direction of someone at the highest level of the previous administration, that is just too serious to ignore.—

But Durbin and other Democrats say they are mindful of the political minefield into which they could be walking.

“Our critics will always say that it’s just about political revenge, but if we do it in a professional, bipartisan way with credible people leading it, I think the American people will believe you just can’t ignore it,— Durbin said. “Everyone has to answer to the law — at the highest levels, at the lowest levels.—

Democrats said that as more and more information comes to light about Cheney’s alleged activities, they are starting to feel more bold about initiating investigations that could bring his role to the fore.

“In light of former Vice President Cheney’s apparent involvement in these activities, it appears that resistance to further investigation is crumbling on Capitol Hill,— said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “While Members want more information before deciding the next steps, many think that there should be serious consideration to reviewing these past actions.—

For now, Democrats do not identify Cheney as the target of any of their inquiries, and another senior aide said it is unlikely that Cheney will ever be targeted.

When they first took back the majority in 2007, Democratic leaders quickly shot down fringe proposals to impeach Cheney. This year, the edict came down from Obama to focus on the problems ahead, rather than dwelling on the Bush administration, and Democrats remain wary of going against that directive.

“There’s a very strong tone coming from the No. 1 Democrat in the country — our president, Barack Obama — that it is his desire and intention to look forward and solve the problems of the country rather than look back and engage in recrimination, and I think that tone has had a considerable effect,— said Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the Intelligence Committee.

In conducting inquiries such as a torture probe led by Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Democrats are careful to say they are merely trying to make sure that no administration is allowed to employ harsh interrogation techniques against detainees nor mislead Congress about secret intelligence programs.

House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) said the political ramifications of focusing on Cheney have no bearing on his decision as to whether he will launch an investigation.

“I don’t think it’s about smearing Dick Cheney. What I would push for is to correct the issue of when and how we get information,— Reyes said. Whether people want to make the probe about Cheney or Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), “I’ve got to filter all that stuff out. I’ve got to go through our process. That’s what we’re doing.—

Reyes said he plans to meet with House Intelligence ranking member Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) today to decide if and how to proceed with a probe. He said he expects to make a final decision by the end of the week.

Feinstein also said she is merely following the evidence in her committee’s ongoing inquiry into alleged torture of “high-value— detainees as well as in her review of the CIA assassination program.

“I’m not going after anybody,— she said. “I’m not at this stage going to cast any blame on anybody. I want this to never happen again.—

Hoekstra said he has yet to see proof that a probe of the assassination program is warranted. He said he is “somewhat skeptical— the panel will do a full-blown investigation since it has “done little to no work— in terms of investigating other instances in which Congress was misled by intelligence agencies.

Hoekstra said he would back an investigation, however, if it turned out the CIA spent “significant amounts of money or if we find out that the program actually operationalized and a whole bunch of people died.—

Unlike Reyes, Feinstein has essentially ruled out having a full-scale investigation of the most recent allegations. However, she indicated the committee has plenty of information on what happened. Both Reyes and Feinstein plan to include a provision requiring more Congressional consultation on intelligence matters in their versions of the intelligence authorization bill this year.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), an Intelligence Committee member, dismissed Obama’s suggestion that Congress focus on the future and not dwell on past events.

“You know, automobiles have headlights by necessity. But they also have rearview mirrors,— Eshoo said. “This needs to be examined to establish facts and see if any law or laws were broken. That’s what we’re supposed to do.—

Otherwise, Eshoo added, “Why have a House Intelligence Committee or Senate Intelligence Committee? Why not just have some rogue agency that somehow gets billions of dollars in appropriations and then we’ll say, Do whatever you want to do?’—

Another Intelligence Committee Democrat, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), called attention to the role that former President George W. Bush may have had in keeping information from Congress.

“If it turns out that the vice president made a direct order … this is generally in the purview of the president of the United States. So there’s questions about that,— Schakowsky said.

Whitehouse, a former prosecutor, said that given the evidence at hand, he supports both the investigations in Congress and Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to consider appointing a special prosecutor to investigate torture allegations.

“If we found a body riddled with bullet holes in the street in our hometown, you would start investigating,— Whitehouse said. “There may or may not be a crime. There may be all sorts of extenuating circumstances or legal defenses or justifications, but you have at least that, and that confers on prosecutors an obligation to make inquiries.—

As for whether Congress and the Justice Department might find their paths lead back to Cheney, Whitehouse said it remains a distinct possibility.

“That is something that the evidence will dictate, but it would certainly come as no surprise,— Whitehouse said.