Panetta Orders Probe of Secret Spy Program

CIA Director Leon Panetta has ordered an internal inquiry into the agency's handling of a contentious and still highly classified intelligence program that has caused a heated dispute between the CIA and Democrats on the House intelligence committee. The move by Panetta appears to be an implicit acknowledgment by the agency that it should have disclosed information about the post-9/11 secret program to Congress much earlier than it did.

The internal CIA probe was described by an official with first-hand knowledge as a review by a senior agency officer--rather than a formal investigation by the inspector general's office. The senior officer is not connected with the National Clandestine Service, the CIA branch whose actions are under scrutiny, according to the official who is familiar with the inquiry.

CIA and congressional officials have refused to describe the nature of the covert program, but insisted it is not connected to the CIA's use of controversial "enhanced" interrogation techniques. But the program's existence erupted into a major political dispute Wednesday night when seven Democrats on the House intelligence committee released a letter charging that the agency had "concealed significant actions" and "misled" members of Congress by failing to inform the oversight committees about the program until last month. The Democrats demanded that Panetta "publicly correct" his statement of May 15 declaring that "it is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress."

Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, said Panetta has nothing to correct: "Director Panetta took the initiative to raise the issue with the Hill. He did so promptly and clearly, as the oversight committees themselves recognize. He stands by his statement that it is neither the policy nor the practice of the CIA to mislead Congress. He believes, as his actions show, in the importance of a candid dialogue with Congress."

One question Congressional Democrats still want answered: was the program an idea CIA officials had just talked about as a possibility, or had they actually put it into operation? If it was just talk, as some in the intelligence community insist, the argument could be made that there was no requirement to notify Congress. "This program came in post-9/11, and it was indeed on-again, off-again," the official said. "You could argue that it never really took shape." The implication is that whatever the details of the program, it carried risks that some officials at the agency strongly felt might not be worth taking.

"You've got a lot of people [at the agency] who, after September 11, were thinking of creative ways of doing things," said one former senior CIA official. "That doesn't mean you have to run up and tell Congress about it."

The political fight over the program was initially sparked by House intelligence chairman Silvestre Reyes, who claimed in a letter Tuesday night that his panel had been "affirmatively lied to" by the CIA. But after the matter escalated Wednesday, Reyes softened his language. He issued a subsequent statement in which he said, "I appreciate Director Panetta's recent efforts to bring issues to the Committee's attention that, for some reason, had not been previously conveyed, and to make certain that the Committee is fully and currently briefed on all intelligence activities. I understand his direction to be that the Agency does not and will not lie to Congress, and he has set a high standard for truth in reporting to Congress."

The political storm over allegations that the CIA "misled" Congress has so far overshadowed what may be a significant political development: President Obama again appears to be siding with the CIA in resisting demands by human-rights groups and liberal Democrats in Congress for closer scrutiny of covert programs.

Hours before House Democrats released their dramatic letter accusing the CIA of withholding information about the secret scheme, the White House threatened to veto a version of a major intelligence bill crafted by Reyes and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The bill would require the executive branch to disclose the existence of classified programs to the full membership of congressional intelligence committees--not just to a small group of congressional leaders known as the "Gang of Eight."

The Gang of Eight briefings--always behind closed doors with no staff present--helped to spur controversy over Bush-era warrantless wiretappings and harsh interrogation, including the use of waterboarding, a technique that Obama and some of his key aides have described as "torture." After details of the Bush programs leaked out, congressional leaders--including Pelosi--charged that they had been misled in the briefings.

As a result, Pelosi, echoing calls from intelligence-reform and civil-liberties campaigners, called for widening the circle of lawmakers who are privy to high-level intelligence briefings. House Democrats inserted language in a pending intelligence-authorization bill requiring the broader congressional oversight by requiring all members of the intel committees to be informed about secret activities. On Wednesday, in a surprise move, Obama said he would not sign the bill unless the language was stripped out.

Three officials familiar with still-secret details of the dispute said Panetta was not himself complicit in authorizing or covering up the program. One of the officials described the CIA director as a good guy for having voluntarily informed Congress about the information. Two officials also said there was no reason to believe that information about the secret program was about to come out in the media; rather, they give Panetta credit for finding out about it and quickly reporting what he knew to the Hill.