Former Vice President Dick Cheney told the CIA eight years ago not to tell Congress about a new mysterious counterterrorism program that CIA Director Leon Panetta terminated in June, officials with direct knowledge of the matter said Saturday.
Subsequent CIA directors did not inform Congress of the program.
The intelligence-gathering effort had not developed to the point that they believed merited a congressional briefing, said a former intelligence official and another government official familiar with Panetta's June 24 briefing to the House and Senate Intelligence committees.
Panetta did not agree.
Upon learning of the program June 23 from within the CIA, Panetta terminated it and the next day called an emergency meeting with the House and Senate Intelligence committees to inform them of the program and that it was canceled.
Cheney, who was the Bush administration's most outspoken advocate for government secrecy, played a central role in overseeing the Bush administration's surveillance program that was the subject of an inspectors general report this past week. That report noted that Cheney's chief of staff, David Addington, personally decided who in Bush's inner circle could even know about the secret program.
But revelations about Cheney's role in making decisions for the CIA on whether to notify Congress came as a surprise to some on the committees, said another government official. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the program publicly.
An effort to reach Cheney was unsuccessful.
A former intelligence official, who was familiar with former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden's tenure at the CIA, said Hayden never communicated with the president or vice president about the now-canceled program and was under no restrictions from Cheney about congressional briefings. The official said Hayden was briefed only two or three times on the program.
Exactly what the counterterrorism program was meant to do remains a mystery. The former intelligence official said it was not related to the CIA's rendition, interrogation and detention program. Nor was it part of a wider classified electronic surveillance program that was the subject of a government report to Congress this past week.
The official characterized it as an embryonic intelligence gathering effort, and only sporadically active. He said it was hoped to yield intelligence that would be used to conduct a secret mission or missions in another country — that is, a covert operation. But it never matured to that point.
The government official with direct knowledge of the Panetta briefing and the former intelligence official said the CIA has numerous efforts ongoing under its existing authorities that have not yet been briefed to Congress. He said they are not yet known to be viable for intelligence gathering.
The Cheney revelation comes as the House of Representatives is preparing to debate a bill that would require the White House to expand the number of members who are told about covert operations. The White House has threatened a veto over concerns that wider congressional notifications could compromise the secrecy of the operations.
That provision, however, would have no effect on programs like this one.
The former intelligence official familiar with Hayden said Congress has a right to contemporaneous information about all CIA activities. But he said there are so many in such early stages that briefing Congress on every one would be too time consuming for both the CIA and the congressional committees.
The New York Times initially reported about Cheney's direction not to tell Congress of the program on its Web site Saturday.