With Pelosi’s blessing, Dems push CIA probe ahead

With their Speaker behind them, House Democrats are pushing ahead with plans to hold a series of hearings investigating instances in which intelligence officials may have misled members of Congress.

Senior Democratic aides said that a major announcement could come by the end of week, but it was already clear on Monday that House Democrats are seizing on weekend news reports that former Vice President Dick Cheney hid information from Congress.

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The New York Times reported on Sunday that the CIA, under the direction of Cheney, developed a secret counterterrorism program and then was directed by the vice president to conceal it from Congress.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that the program was a classified initiative to kill or capture al Qaeda operatives. Cheney has not commented on the media reports.

Members of both the House and the Senate Intelligence committees learned about the program last week, when CIA Director Leon Panetta told them in classified hearings that he had just learned about the program and had ordered it terminated.

But Panetta also told Democrats and Republicans on the Intelligence panels that Cheney had directed his predecessors to conceal the program from all members of Congress, even the so-called Gang of Eight House and Senate leaders and top Intelligence committee members, who are directed under federal law to receive regular intelligence briefings.

Senior congressional aides said Panetta’s latest briefing angered members of the panels, even though Panetta had only weeks prior admitted to members of the Intelligence committees that the CIA had, under past directors, engaged in obfuscation following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The latest development on Cheney has prodded some senior Democrats to begin calling for hearings, which up until late last week had been something many leading Democrats were hesitant to do.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Monday signaled that she would give the House Intelligence Committee a green light to investigate incidents in which the CIA misled or lied to Congress, including times when Cheney was supposedly involved.

“I think that it behooves the committee to take whatever actions they believe are necessary to get more information on that subject as to whether the intelligence community was directed by the vice president to create a program and intentionally withhold that information from Congress. And further, if these same intelligence community people were asked, ‘Is there anything else we should know?’ whether they said yes or whether they said no,” Pelosi told reporters.

Pelosi has previously used the line of looking forward instead of backwards when pressed on other issues, such as impeaching President George W. Bush and prosecuting Bush administration officials. But in the wake of the Cheney reports, she is allowing her panel chairmen to act should they choose to do so.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Sunday said Congress should “absolutely” investigate the fractured relationship between the intelligence community and Congress.

But Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Democrat in the upper chamber, says some Democrats are getting ahead of themselves.

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In an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program on Monday, Schumer said if there are egregious violations, they should be investigated.

“As for Vice President Cheney, frankly, everyone is jumping the gun,” Schumer said. “We don’t know enough.”

After it was noted that other Democrats are calling for a probe of Cheney, Schumer replied, “Different strokes for different folks.”

In the lower chamber, two Intelligence panel Democrats — Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who heads the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, and, separately, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) — have already called for hearings.

Yet the panel’s chairman, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), has not publicly said how he will handle those, and any other, requests.

“The chairman is reviewing the information and the options available to him and consulting with the ranking member,” said Courtney Littig, a spokeswoman for the committee.

Prior to last week, when it was first made public that Panetta admitted privately to past instances of misleading briefings, Democrats have had a difficult time navigating the politics of the intelligence community’s transgressions.

After Pelosi first made the allegation that she had regularly been misled by the CIA, she and Democrats were dogged by charges of making their own questionable claims, which were levied relentlessly by Republicans who demanded that Pelosi either prove her claims or apologize for them.

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Democrats now believe further revelations about the degree to which the Bush administration misled Congress are giving them political cover.

“I think it puts the focus back on the Bush administration,” a Democratic aide said. “The Republicans attempted to use this as an issue, but with more and more evidence coming out about the Bush-Cheney administration circumventing Congress completely, it shows it’s a real red herring.”

Pelosi on Monday said she only learned of Cheney’s involvement through press reports. Last week she told reporters that she likewise had only heard about Panetta’s admission that agency officials had repeatedly lied to Congress through press reports.

That fact, a senior GOP aide said, will lead Republicans to continue to call on Pelosi to provide details about how she was misled and when.