Short answer is, I don’t know. But I do know this much. Some of the speculation on the web is just batshit crazy wrong. Sam Stein, for example, writing at Huffington Post offered these guesses:
The first is that the CIA was keeping quiet about the use of waterboarding on terrorist suspects. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she was misled by the intelligence agency on that very subject. It’s also the story told to the Huffington Post by a source with knowledge of the letter the seven House Democrats penned to CIA chief Leon Panetta, in which they complained about being misled. . . .
Another theory being bandied about concerns an “executive assassination ring” that was allegedly set up and answered to former Vice President Dick Cheney. The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, building off earlier reporting from the New York Times, dropped news of the possibility that such a ring existed in a March 2009 discussion sponsored by the University of Minnesota.
No and hell no. How do I know?
Let’s start with the “executive assassination” nonsense. First of all Sy Hersh claimed it was being done by the military and not the CIA. Sy names the units and their commanders. Until Title 10 of the USC there is no obligation or requirement to brief military matters to Congress that are considered Top Secret. The CIA operates under Title 50. The Bush Administration made a special effort to hide stuff the CIA normally would have to brief to Congress by tasking the military to carry out those missions. Second, where are the dead bodies? There was no assassination squad. This is a story that Sy got wrong.
What about waterboarding? If it was the fact that the CIA lied about when waterboarding started you can be sure the Dems, with Pelosi leading the charge, would have that front and center. You are not going to compromise a source or operation by revealing that “secret.” Even Stein concedes the waterboarding theory is a stretch.
So where does that leave us?
New York Times points a finger at Dick Cheney. According to the Times:
The Central Intelligence Agency withheld information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress for eight years on direct orders from former Vice President Dick Cheney, the agency’s director, Leon E. Panetta, has told the Senate and House intelligence committees, two people with direct knowledge of the matter said Saturday.
The report that Mr. Cheney was behind the decision to conceal the still-unidentified program from Congress deepened the mystery surrounding it, suggesting that the Bush administration had put a high priority on the program and its secrecy.
Greg Miller at the LA Times provides a more informative piece:
The secret counter-terrorism program was first put in place shortly after those attacks, but it was never fully operational, sources said. Current and former intelligence and congressional officials have offered different viewpoints on the program’s significance.
A senior congressional aide said the magnitude of the program and the decision to keep it secret should not be downplayed. “Panetta found out about this for the first time and within 24 hours was in the office telling us,” the aide said. “If this wasn’t a big deal, why would the director of the CIA come sprinting up to the Hill like that?”
An aide to Cheney did not respond to a request for comment. CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano declined to comment Saturday on the program or Cheney’s role, which was initially reported by the New York Times on its website.
By law, the CIA is required to make sure that congressional committees are “kept fully and currently informed of the intelligence activities of the United States, including any significant anticipated intelligence activity.”
But there is latitude in the language for programs and operations deemed extremely sensitive, or those that might be considered routine. Indeed, former U.S. intelligence officials said that Panetta’s predecessors, including retired Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, did not feel they were constrained from informing Congress about the program, but regarded the activity as falling well short of the threshold for congressional notification.
“We do a lot of foreign intelligence collection we don’t run down to the Hill and say, ‘How about this?’ ” said a former U.S. intelligence official familiar with the program, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
More than a year ago, however, Hayden informed subordinates that the intelligence committees would need to be briefed on the program if it crossed certain thresholds, according to former officials.
This still doesn’t tell us what the effort was but it does muddy up the “lying” charge. If the CIA is directed by the President (or Vice President) to withhold information from the Senate or the House it is not necessarily lying. In fact, let’s put the shoe on the other foot. If the Republicans take back the House in 2010 is it okay for Barack Obama to order the CIA not to share information about a sensitive intelligence operation with the Congress? If it is okay for Cheney then it is okay for Barack. Likewise if it is wrong for Cheney it is wrong for Obama.
My view? Everyone ought to keep their powder dry before firing shots at a target they cannot see and do not fully understand. In my view it depends on whether or not the program in question involved a very sensitive human source or technical operation that enabled us to listen in on the private chats of terrorists. If the answer is yes then there may be a good reason to have said nothing. If this was just a lame excuse to hide political meddling then the CIA is in trouble.
This is the classic intelligence shit storm–the CIA is asked by one Administration to do something that the succeeding Administration suddenly decides is wrong. Let’s not forget that the Bushies played hardball at the CIA and went after solid professionals like Valerie Plame and Fulton Armstrong. They also leaked sensitive human intelligence to papers like the New York Times for nothing more than political spin. Bush and Cheney only believed in selective protection of intelligence. They proved that through their repeated actions.
I don’t think this is a program kept secret just to cover the ass of Bush and Cheney. I think Greg Miller sets the right tone–it was a fringe, risky idea that was never implemented. For people like Pelosi, however, it is a great distraction. Let’s not forget that Panetta has not reneged on his claim that Pelosi’s charge about the CIA lying was a crock.