* Issue could become distraction for Obama
* Republicans object to probe focus
By Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON, July 17 (Reuters) - The House Intelligence Committee said on Friday it was launching a formal investigation into the concealment of a secret CIA program from Congress that one senator said was withheld on orders from former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Immediately after the Democrats announced the investigation, Republicans cried foul and called it a partisan effort to protect the Democratic leader, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
It was the latest spat in the political bickering that has erupted this year between Democrats and Republicans over CIA-related issues.
The investigation has the potential to become a distraction from President Barack Obama’s efforts to push an ambitious domestic agenda through Congress.
According to media reports, the CIA program involved an effort to carry out a 2001 authorization by Republican President George W. Bush to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives. The CIA said it was never fully operational.
The probe will look into "whether there was any past decision or direction to withhold information from the committee" about the intelligence program that CIA Director Leon Panetta informed lawmakers about on June 24, Representative Silvestre Reyes, the Democratic committee chairman, said in a statement.
Panetta, appointed by Obama to head the spy agency, killed the program when he found out about it.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said on "Fox News Sunday" the CIA had withheld information from Congress about the program on Cheney’s orders.
Republicans have been trying to keep the heat on Pelosi who became embroiled in controversy over when she knew the CIA was using waterboarding on terrorism suspects.
"At no time will the Republicans of this committee agree to or take part in congressional Democrats’ efforts to tear down the CIA to provide cover for Speaker Pelosi," said Representative Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the committee.
Republicans also took issue with Democrats saying the investigation would look into violation of the National Security Act, which could lead to criminal charges.
"In the absence of substantiated facts, to even speculate on potential criminal behavior shows that this is little more than partisan, political theater and continues the politicization of important intelligence matters by Democrats," Hoekstra said.
The CIA will work closely with the committee on the review and "the agency’s goal is that this new investigation not become a distraction to the men and women of CIA," said CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano. (Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Peter Cooney)