WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The CIA withheld information from the U.S. Congress about a secret counterterrorism program on orders from former Vice President Dick Cheney, a senator said on Sunday as Democrats called for an investigation.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein told “Fox News Sunday” that CIA Director Leon Panetta disclosed Cheney’s involvement when he briefed members of Congress two weeks ago. She said Panetta told them he had canceled the program.
President Barack Obama, a Democrat, appointed Panetta to head the agency early this year. The still-secret program, which The New York Times said never became operational, began after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
The Wall Street Journal said the secret initiative terminated by Panetta was an effort to carry out a 2001 authorization by then Republican President George W. Bush to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives.
Citing current and former government officials, the newspaper reported the CIA spent money on planning and possibly some training but the initiative had not become fully operational. Panetta ended the CIA effort after learning about it on June 23, the Journal said.
‘COULD BE ILLEGAL’
News of Cheney’s involvement, reported by the Times on Sunday, prompted an outpouring of criticism by Obama’s fellow Democrats and support by rival Republicans in Congress.
Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said: “Director Panetta did brief us two weeks ago -- I believe it was on the 24th of June ... and, as had been reported, did tell us that he was told that the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to the Congress.”
Asked if the matter should be investigated, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said: “Absolutely.”
“The executive branch of government cannot create programs like these programs and keep Congress in the dark. There is a requirement for disclosure,” Durbin said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“It has to be done in an appropriate way so it doesn’t jeopardize our national security. But to have a massive program that is concealed from the leaders in Congress is not only inappropriate, it could be illegal.”
Feinstein and Democrat Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, insisted no one should go outside the law.
Asked about Cheney’s alleged involvement, Leahy told the CBS program “Face the Nation”: “I’d like to know if it’s true or not. I mean, nobody in this country is above the law ... You can’t have somebody say, well, if you’re vice president, you don’t have to obey the law.”
Feinstein said Congress “should have been told.”
“This is a big problem, because the law is very clear. And I understand the need of the day, which was when America was in shock” after September 11, she said on Fox. “But ... I think you weaken your case when you go outside of the law.”
CHENEY‘S POST-ELECTION BATTLE
Cheney was a key advocate in the Bush administration of using controversial interrogation methods such as waterboarding on terrorism suspects and has emerged as a leading Republican critic of Obama’s national security policies.
Since Obama took over from Bush on January 20, Cheney has engaged in a contentious battle with the new administration over the CIA interrogation procedures that undermined the reputation of the United States around the world.
In one of his first acts as president, Obama ordered more humane treatment for terrorism suspects.
Panetta has vowed not to allow coercive interrogation practices, secret prisons or the transfer of terrorism suspects to countries that may use torture -- a pledge seen as a break with the agency’s policies under Bush.
Senator Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told “Face the Nation” he said he believed the allegations against Cheney will be investigated.
Asked if he expected the situation to be looked into, Sessions said: “Well, I‘m sure it will be.”
“I don’t know what the facts are. But I believe that Vice President Cheney served his country with as much fidelity as he could possibly give to it. And he tried to serve us in an effective way. And I hope that nothing like this would impact on his outstanding record.”
Reporting by World Desk Americas and JoAnne Allen; Editing by John O'Callaghan