Secret CIA Program Remains Undisclosed

The furor over a secret CIA program shows no sign of dying down. Democrats are pushing for an investigation into the program, which was concealed from Congress for years.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. We're going to follow up now on a couple of key questions about a secret CIA program. Democrats, some of them, are pushing for an investigation into that program, which was concealed from Congress for years. At the heart of the controversy are these questions: What was the program, anyway? And when exactly is the CIA required to brief Congress? NPR's Mary Louise Kelly covers the intelligence community, as it's called.

Good morning, Mary Louise.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay. So what is actually known about the program?

KELLY: Well, there's still quite a lot of mystery surrounding it. But what we do know is this: It was a covert program, clearly. It began back in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. It continued in an on-again, off-again fashion up until last year. And there is a lot of speculation that it had to do with a presidential authorization after 9/11 to capture or kill al-Qaida leaders. So we're talking about using lethal force against al-Qaida. But what exact type of operations, we still don't know.

What we do know is CIA director, the new one, Leon Panetta, apparently didn't know about it until last month. He was briefed. Once he found out, he said we're shutting this program down and I'm going up to Congress the next day and we are going to brief them.

INSKEEP: Although, Panetta also apparently said that while the people that now work for him - the people in the CIA - concealed the program, they claim to have done that on someone else's orders.

KELLY: This is the rule of former Vice President Dick Cheney, apparently. This was reported over the weekend - first by the New York Times - that the reason the CIA didn't brief this to Congress sooner was because Dick Cheney told them not to. And that's an interesting twist. And we should note Mr. Cheney has not confirmed his role in this. But if it's true, it suggests - his involvement suggests that this was perhaps a higher profile program than CIA officials have acknowledged thus far.

INSKEEP: Well, let me try to figure out the law, as well as the tradition here, because Panetta apparently felt when he found out about this program that he should tell Congress about it, even though it was clearly embarrassing news at this point. Was he actually - or was anybody at the CIA actually legally required to tell Congress about this?

KELLY: It's actually not 100 percent clear. The law that governs this is called the National Security Act of 1947. And it's been amended many times since then, but the relevant portion is this: Congress must be notified about all significant intelligence activities, also - and this is important - all significant anticipated intelligence activities.

So the question becomes: What is significant? Who gets to decide? And clearly in the case of this particular program, people came out with very different views about whether it met the standard.

INSKEEP: Did anybody come up with one of those legal opinions, saying this isn't really that significant?

KELLY: Well, I think from the CIA point of view - I mean, it doesn't reach the point where they get a legal ruling on all these things. We know that they do brief Congress hundreds of times a year on significant intelligence activities. So perhaps they felt this one had not met the standard. Perhaps, as we say, Mr. Cheney short circuited the process.

One other point worth making, one former intelligence official I spoke to said, look. The CIA didn't tell Congress about this because they didn't want it to leak. So they kept it to themselves and it didn't leak for eight years. Last month, it was briefed to Congress, and now here we are talking about it. So they've made a pretty compelling case for why the CIA might not want to tell Congress.

INSKEEP: Mary Louise, thanks very much.

KELLY: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly updating us on the controversy over a covert CIA program which Congress may be preparing to investigate.

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