Congress Bickers Over Secret CIA Program

House Democrats disclosed that they've been told the CIA concealed an unidentified program from Congress for years just as the House takes up a bill to authorize intelligence programs. Democrats want to expand the number of lawmakers briefed on covert operations to 40, up from the current eight. But President Barack Obama has issued a — rare — veto threat against the bill, saying small briefings are adequate if oversight works properly.

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Partisan passions have once again been stirred on Capitol Hill by revelations of secret CIA activities during the Bush administration. The question, when is the CIA required to tell Congress what it's doing? The latest episode involves a program the agency did not disclose for nearly eight years. NPR's David Welna has this report.

DAVID WELNA: He can't talk about what the long undisclosed CIA program actually was, but House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes says there's no question it was what he calls a serious program. It was so serious, Reyes says, that when CIA Director Leon Panetta first learned about it on June 23rd, he immediately decided to brief the full House and Senate Intelligence Committees on it.

Representative SILVESTRE REYES (Democrat, Texas; Chairman, House Intelligence Committee): We've got to take into account as a fact that number one, the director came to us - Director Panetta came to us literally within 24 hours of finding out himself. And secondly, he had already made the decision to terminate that program. So it's a very serious program that he terminated.

WELNA: Reyes wrote a letter made public this week saying the CIA had at least in one instance, quote, affirmatively lied to Congress. California Democrat Anna Eshoo, who's also on the intelligence panel, signed a separate letter along with six other Democrats to CIA director Panetta. In it, she said the CIA misled members of Congress for nearly eight years about the undisclosed program.

Representative ANNA ESHOO (Democrat, California): We don't know who ordered it. We don't know where they drew the money from. We don't know the impacts of the program. What we do know is that they were told not to report it to the Congress. So, this is highly, highly serious.

Representative MIKE ROGERS (Republican, Michigan): Clearly it's political.

WELNA: That's Michigan Republican Mike Rogers who's also on the intelligence committee. Rogers thinks Democrats are more interested in portraying the CIA as untrustworthy than they are in the program itself.

Rep. ROGERS: Because the program was not implemented, it was not fully successful and the minor components of that would not have required it to be briefed to Congress. So, what I had done is said, gee, yeah, I'd like to know more questions. I don't think I send out public letters saying they misled us and lied to us.

WELNA: Rogers and many other Republicans have been chiding speaker Nancy Pelosi for complaining in May that she'd been misled by the CIA about its use of waterboarding. They see the Democrats' outrage over the undisclosed program as a thinly-disguised effort to vindicate their leader. Democrats say that's not so.

Rep. REYES: What we're doing is not about speaker Pelosi.

WELNA: Again, Intelligence Committee Chairman Reyes.

Rep. REYES: I think the record is pretty clear. Whether or not it vindicates the speaker, you know, people are going to have make up their own mind.

WELNA: Reyes says he's still looking into how to proceed on an investigation of why the CIA kept Congress in the dark about its program. In the meantime, the House is about to consider an intelligence authorization bill that's drawn a veto threat from the Obama White House. That's because the bill expands the number of lawmakers who have to be briefed on sensitive intelligence matters to include all three dozen members of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Currently, only the top Republican and Democrat on those panels and in each chamber is entitled to such briefings. The Obama administration wants to keep it that way. Democrat Eshoo says that's not fair to the other committee members.

Rep. ESHOO: You have to be responsible for all the decisions that are taken. But you don't have all of the information. This is baloney.

WELNA: On that, Republicans agree with Democrats, but because Democrats don't want their intelligence bill vetoed, they're now in talks with the White House about finding a compromise.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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