The King of torture, the Sultan of Secrets, Dick Cheney, is suddenly silent. He’s been as garrulous as a gaggle of geese since he left office, but he has yet to respond to a New York Times article that brings to light a secret counter-terrorism program– so secret that he ordered the CIA to keep it secret from Congress. The program is still classified, which has also kept former-CIA Director George Tenet from commenting, but the program’s existence came to light when Leon Panetta, the current Director, testified in late June before House intelligence committees. Leon Panetta stepped into the Pelosi-Waterboarding scandal when he denied that the CIA misleads members of Congress. He recently stood by that comment, saying that it was “not the policy of the CIA to mislead Congress.” It may not be the policy, but his revelation proves that it does indeed occur. He also added: “It is vital to keep the Congress fully and currently informed.” Panetta also testified that he ended the program when he first learned about it, which was on June 23.
This revelation follows a 38 page report from “inspectors general of the nation’s top intelligence agencies, the Pentagon and the Justice Department,” which had been initiated by Congress. The report concludes that the secret warrantless-wiretapping program that was started within a few weeks after 9/11 was based on “factually flawed” legal interpretations from a single attorney at the Deprtment of Justice– John Yoo. Yoo is also responsible for the legal basis for the U.S.’s heinous torture program. The report quotes his superior, former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, who describes Yoo as “the White House’s guy.” In a blast to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca8), the report found that she and other members of Congress had been briefed on the illegal program 17 times, and no one objected to the program. Tsk-tsk Pelosi. Where was your outrage then?
On July 9, the CIA reported that they were beginning an internal review of how they brief Congress on secret and classified programs and operations. Leon Panetta undertook this review in order “to take a look at what happened and to explore what the C.I.A. can do to improve its reporting to Congress.” This review comes amid Congressional squabbling over Pelosi’s assertion that the CIA mislead her and other members of Congress about their waterboarding program. The agency and Leon Panetta have insisted that they did not mislead her, or anyone else, essentially calling Pelosi a liar. However, the internal review suggests that Panetta is starting to back away from his earlier statements. Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), in an interview with NPR, flat-out accussed the CIA of not providing Congress “full and complete information,” and, at times, of lying to members of Congress. Asked if the CIA violated the National Security Act, Reyes resoinded, “In my opinion, numerous times.”
The program was kept a secret for 8 years, per former-Vice President Dick Cheney’s orders, but now that its existence is known several lawmakers, including Reyes, are demanding an investigation. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Il), a House Intelligence subcommittee chairwoman, is one of those demanding an investigation. Her criticism did not extend to the current Director of the CIA, who, according to her, was “stunned” by the revelaton, which came five months into his tenure. He immediately shut down the program and the next day he informed Congress. Panetta, in Schakowsky’s opinion, is changing the agency for the better. Her criticism, instead, is directed at the Bush administration, who held Congress in “contempt” and behaved as though it was “an annoyance to them to have to come to us and answer our questions. There was an impatience and a contempt for the Congress.” In addition to the internal review, the revelations have also encourged members of Congress to push for a bill that would allow more members of Congress– rather than the “Gang of Eight“– to be included in CIA briefings about covert operations. President Obama has indicated that he will issue a veto if the bill is passed.
The report also includes some discussion about the role of Dick Cheney in the creation of the surveillance program, and the withholding of the program’s existence from Congress. A one point, as described on page 22 of the report, Dick Cheney suggested that President Bush reauthorize the program without legal consent from the Department of Justice. At the time, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was hospitalized and was therefore incapable of signing the authorization. According to former FBI Director Rubert Mueller’s notes of the meeting, Mueller expressed his discomfort with the suggestion: “I could have a problem with that… [the FBI would] have to review legality of continued participation in the program.” When others expressed similar discomfort, according to the report, Cheney described the program as “critically important” and accused the acting Attorney General, James Comey, of risking “thousands” of lives. The report underscores the Vice President’s attempts to limit the number of people privy to the program’s existence, going so far as to require the personal approval of the Vice President’s legal advisor David Addington before disclosing the program to any individual. It also underscored his attempts to widen the scope of the program’s powers.
Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the House Intelligence Committee’s senior Republican, has portrayed Democrats’ outrage as political maneuvering. He criticized the Democrats’ recent letter to CIA Director Leon Panetta as “one of the most bizarre episodes in politics that I’ve seen in my time here in Washington.” It is not surprising that there is much opposition to the current talk– it was their President and Vice President who oversaw broad and secretive programs in order to spy on the American public. They would much rather focus their efforts on accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of crossing the line when she asserted that the CIA was lying about its waterboarding program. As events unfold, it becomes increasingly apparent that Pelosi was telling the truth.
One can only hope that Leon Panetta and the Obama administration will be more transparent and honest than their predecessors.