Eshoo blasts Republicans on CIA program

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) on Friday scolded Republicans for mischaracterizing briefings about a classified CIA program and revealed new details about alleged attempts to keep it secret from Congress.

Eshoo, a senior member of the Intelligence panel, disputed assertions by the panel’s ranking Republican, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (Mich.), that the CIA was not obligated to inform Congress about a specific classified program because it was not fully up and running.

“That’s a total mischaracterization of what we were briefed,” said a clearly irritated Eshoo. “The entire committee was stunned [when it heard about the program].”

She described the program as “operational from 2001 to June 2009.”

“The fact that the CIA did not brief one member is nothing short of extraordinary,” she said.

At issue is a program CIA Director Leon Panetta briefed members of the full House and Senate Intelligence panels about on June 24. Eshoo said Panetta had just learned of the secret program with serious national security implications himself and immediately canceled it. He then informed the Intelligence committees.

In press accounts, CIA officials, speaking anonymously, have described a post-Sept. 11 program as “on-again, off-again” and one that arguably “never really took shape.”

Eshoo rejected that argument, instead asserting that there was an internal CIA “directive to keep this from Congress.”

“Someone told the CIA not to inform us,” she said.

When asked if that “someone” was in a position of higher authority than the CIA, Eshoo said “that would appear to be the case.”

Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) would not say whether the program was operational or in a planning stage when Panetta found out about it. He said his committee is gathering CIA documents related to the program and will launch a formal investigation soon.

The CIA is conducting its own internal review of how it briefs Congress on secret programs, intelligence officials said Thursday. Panetta has assigned a senior CIA officer to look into the lapse and explore ways the agency can improve its congressional briefings.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), another member of the Intelligence panel, sent a letter to Reyes calling for an immediate and full investigation into the potential breach of a national security law requiring the CIA to keep members informed of all activities.

“The systematic deception by the CIA is a possible violation of the National Security Act, and, at a minimum, a blatant disregard of this committee’s oversight authority,” she wrote. “It is clear to me that the revelations Mr. Panetta provided create an imperative for an investigation to begin immediately by either the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee that I chair or the full committee.”

House Democratic leaders were set to begin debate on the intelligence authorization bill Thursday but have since punted the issue to next week. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill over a provision that would give Congress instead of the White House the power to decide which lawmakers are briefed on CIA activities.

Reyes on Friday said negotiations with the White House were ongoing and predicted they would continue until the House and Senate conference on the bill. He said the House would keep the briefing language intact when the measure comes to the floor next week.

The uproar over whether the CIA lied or misled Congress has divided lawmakers along party lines since May, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) first accused the agency of failing to inform her in 2002 about the enhanced interrogation technique known as waterboarding.

Republicans seized on the issue, arguing that Pelosi was informed about waterboarding but declined to make it public. They also accused her of attacking the credibility of intelligence officers and demoralizing the intelligence community.

Pelosi spent weeks tamping down the outrage, but the furor started again this week when Reyes sent Hoekstra a letter saying that Panetta’s June 24 briefing “led me to conclude that this committee has been misled, has not been provided full and complete notifications, and [in at least one case] was affirmatively lied to.”

Seven other Democrats on the panel echoed those sentiments in a letter sent June 26 to Panetta. The letter was originally classified but was declassified and released this week after Reyes’s letter was made public.

Republicans drew Democratic fire in June for characterizing aspects of a closed intelligence briefing with the media.

The briefing came at a time when the GOP was defending the former administration’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques and addressing Pelosi’s charge that she was not informed about them. Republicans members of the committee told the media following the briefing that the interrogation methods had yielded valuable information.

Democratic members at the time lashed out at Republicans for disclosing any information revealed inside the briefing.