Cheney's Role In CIA Briefings Unusual, But Legal

Dick Cheney speaks at the Heritage Foundation.

hide captionAs vice president, Dick Cheney (seen here in January 2008) led CIA briefings with senior members of Congress on the Bush-era harsh interrogation program, according to a Washington Post report. Intelligence experts say Cheney's role, while highly unusual, was within legal parameters — and underscored his stake in the program.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The long-playing saga over who was briefed about the Bush administration's harsh interrogation techniques and by whom took another turn Wednesday.

And this time it didn't involve the long-simmering debate over what now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was told in a secret 2002 briefing with the CIA, or whether the agency at the time gave her and other congressional intelligence committee leaders the whole story.

The latest chapter, reported by The Washington Post Wednesday, involves former Vice President Dick Cheney, who remains the nation's most prominent proponent of the use of harsh interrogation techniques, including the near-drowning practice of waterboarding.

In 2005, Cheney led four briefings with senior members of Congress, the Post says. During one of those sessions, the report says, Cheney pressured Arizona Sen. John McCain to drop his legislation to forbid "cruel, degrading and inhumane" treatment of detainees. McCain resisted; his amendment was approved.

Intrigued by Cheney's involvement in the briefings, NPR spoke to top national security experts about the vice president's role in meetings with members of Congress.

The president is under legal obligation to speedily inform intelligence committees of covert actions such as the harsh interrogation program. The law also says that notice can be limited to the eight leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees, though presidents, including Bush and his predecessors, have routinely excluded all but four of the top House and Senate intelligence leaders.

Experts we spoke with included Frederick P. Hitz, the former inspector general of the CIA, who is now on the faculty at University of Virginia; lawyer Jeffrey Smith, a former general counsel to the CIA and chairman of the Joint Security Commission; and Vicki Divoll, former counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and former assistant general counsel to the CIA, where she was an adviser to the Counterterrorist Center.

Was it legal and permissible for Vice President Cheney — and the White House — to be directly involved in congressional intelligence briefings?

HITZ: I believe it was. The director of the CIA works for the president and serves at his pleasure.

SMITH: There is no formal protocol of which I am aware that prescribes how briefings are to be conducted, or by whom. These matters are typically worked out between the leadership of the intelligence committees and the administration. They are often ad hoc or on a case-by-case basis. Because [authority to inform Congress] is specifically vested in the president, it is certainly reasonable for him to direct that the briefing be carried out by the vice president.

DIVOLL: Of course it's permissible. He's the vice president. He can go to any briefing he wants.

How unusual is it for the White House to get directly involved in briefings such as these?

HITZ: Unusual, yes; unprecedented, no. Personnel from the White House are often involved in briefings and often are carrying water to Capitol Hill on assignment from the president. We're seeing that play out now with Vice President Biden. Maybe the fact that with Cheney it involved intelligence briefings is more unusual. But I bet if we went back to the Vietnam era, we'd find the same.

SMITH: It is highly unusual for the vice president to conduct the briefing and does change the dynamic and politics of the briefing. In my many years of working on these matters at State, on the Senate staff, and at the CIA, I cannot recall a previous instance of a briefing being conducted by a vice president. It may well have happened, but I cannot recall such an instance.

DIVOLL: It's new, but it's not unheard of. One of the things Vice President Cheney also did is go to the CIA headquarters and talk to analysts about links between Iraq and al-Qaida. That kind of hands-on vice presidential attention is very unusual. The concept of the vice president sitting around a table with young analysts is inappropriate. And the National Security Agency briefing on wiretapping was held in his office. But meeting with McCain or Sen. [John] Rockefeller [of West Virginia] on legislation is not unusual at all.

What does then-Vice President Cheney's active participation in the 2005 briefings tell you about his investment in the interrogation program and his relationship at the time with the CIA?

HITZ: It has struck me that he really took ownership over the determination of the agency to do the interrogations, if they were proved legal. I think he probably was doing it as much to say, "Hey, this isn't just the CIA talking, this is the White House and me. You've got to listen."

SMITH: The presence of the vice president would not only emphasize the importance of the subject matter but signal the members of Congress that if they object to the activity, they're going to be taking on not just the CIA but also the president.

DIVOLL: This is what he cared about — even though they hadn't been doing it [waterboarding] since 2003, he wanted to be able to do it. In his mind, it would probably be OK if President Obama, instead of banning torture, just said, "We're not doing 'x,' but that it doesn't mean we won't do it."

Bottom line, from the experts: The White House generally leaves congressional intelligence briefings to the CIA. But, as he has repeatedly shown, Cheney felt strongly enough about the program of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that he wanted to make the case himself — and did so within the parameters of the law.

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