CIA Program at Center of Congressional Controversy ‘Never Went Fully Operational,’ Says U.S. Intelligence Official

July 10, 2009 - 5:27 PM
A CIA program that CIA Director Leon Panetta briefed congressional intelligence committees about on June 24 was an "on-again, off-again" project that "never went fully operational" and that Panetta had been informed about by a CIA component that recommended he inform Congress about it.

In this Feb. 6, 2009 file photo, then-Central Intelligence Agency Director nominee Leon Panetta testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, FILE)

(CNSNews.com) - A Central Intelligence Agency program that CIA Director Leon Panetta briefed congressional intelligence committees about on June 24 was an “on-again, off-again” project that “never went fully operational” and that Panetta had been informed about by a component of the CIA itself that recommended he in turn inform Congress about it, a U.S. intelligence official told CNSNews.com.

Panetta’s June 24 briefings have now opened a new controversy over the CIA between Democratic and Republican members of the congressional intelligence committees, and led to renewed charges by some Democrats that the CIA misled Congress.
 
Panetta brought the program to the attention of the congressional committees as quickly as it was feasible to do so after he was informed about it.  The exact nature of the program has not been disclosed.
 
“This program was on-again, off-again over the years and never went fully operational,” a U.S. intelligence official told CNSNews.com. “When it came to Panetta’s attention—and it was a CIA component that brought it to him—it was with the recommendation that it be briefed to the Congress.
 
“He agreed,” said the intelligence official, “and got the job done in about a day, as soon as the members of the oversight committees could be brought together.”
 
On June 26, two days after Panetta briefed the committees, seven Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee sent him a letter asking him to “publicly correct” the comment he had made on May 15 that it “is not the policy or practice” of the CIA to mislead Congress.
 
Panetta made that statement in response to remarks House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made at a May 14 press conference.  At that press conference, Pelosi said the CIA “misleads us all the time” and specifically claimed that the CIA had lied to her in a September 2002 briefing when, she says, the agency told her it had not used waterboarding up to that point, when in fact it had used the interrogation technique against al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah. 

Republicans have questioned Pelosi's charge and challenged her to provide evidence to back it up.
 
Like Pelosi's May 14 statements, the June 26 letter from the seven Democrats portrayed the CIA as an agency that has misled Congress over a protracted period of time. 

“Recently you testified that you have determined that top CIA officials have concealed significant actions from all Members of Congress, and misled Members for a number of years from 2001 to this week,” the seven Democratic members wrote Panetta in their June 26 letter. “This is similar to other deceptions of which we are aware from other recent periods.
 
“In light of your testimony, we ask that you publicly correct your statement of May 15, 2009,” wrote the Democrats.  The signers included Reps. Anna Eshoo (Calif.), John Tierney (Mass.), Rush Holt (N.J.), Mike Thompson (Calif.), Alcee Hastings (Fla.), Janice Schakowsky (Ill.) and Adam Smith (Wash.).
 
CIA Spokesman George Little told the Washington Times in a story that ran today that Panetta is not backing away from what he said on May 15. “Director Panetta stands by his May 15 statement,” said Little. “This agency and this director believe it is vital to keep the Congress fully and currently informed. Director Panetta’s actions back that up.”
 
On the evening of Tuesday, July 7, House Intelligence Chairman Sylvestre Reyes (D.-Texas) delivered a letter to Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the committee, about Panetta’s briefing—which had taken place almost three weeks before.
 
“Like you, I was greatly concerned with the notification the Committee received on June 24, 2009, from Director Panetta,” wrote Reyes.  “This, along with another recent notification, has brought to light significant information on the inadequacy of reporting to the Committee.  These notifications have led me to conclude that this Committee has been misled, has not been provided full and complete notifications, and (in at least one case) was affirmatively lied to.
 
“As you know, I have begun to take steps to gather information on the recent notification,” wrote Reyes.  “This may well lead to a full committee investigation.  I believe that you share my concern, and I look forward to working on this issue with you.”
 
But Hoekstra apparently did not share Reyes’s concern. 
 
Appearing on Mark Levin’s nationally syndicated radio show last night, Hoekstra said the behavior of House Democrats regarding Panetta’s briefing was “strange.”
 
“But the briefing we were in, Mark, was one where Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, called and asked to brief the committee on an issue that he thought was important, came in, briefed us on a program that had had some planning done on it,” Hoekstra told Levin. “But the program had never taken place. The program had never been briefed to Congress. And so some Democrats are now saying: ‘See they’re withholding information from us. They’re not telling us everything that’s going on.’
 
“Mark, this was a program that was planned, there was some planning that was going on, but as people in the intelligence community looked at it, they said: ‘Nah, this thing will never work. It’s never going to fly,’” said Hoekstra. “So they never implemented the program. So, basically, they are raising all this fuss about a program that never happened.”
 
Hoelstra went on to say: “The important thing is that it never happened.”
 
“So, it’s not like they misled us and they did something and they never told Congress,” said Hoekstra. “They did some planning and then they decided not to do the program.”
 
Sen. Kit Bond (R.-Mo.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement yesterday saying he suspects House Democrats issued their letters attacking the CIA this week in an effort “to cover up” for Speaker Pelosi’s unsubstantiated accusations against the agency.
 
“These letters from House Democrats about Director Panetta’s briefing are not only ridiculous, they are highly irresponsible,” said Bond.
 
“This action appears to be an attempt to cover up for Speaker Pelosi’s faulty memory and baseless accusations about the hardworking men and women of the CIA, and to encourage the press to dig up information on a classified intelligence briefing.
 
“Such a blatant use of classified national security information for partisan political purposes is unfortunate, and rather pathetic,” said Bond.
 
“No wonder some in the intelligence community believe that members of Congress cannot be trusted with classified information,” he said.