Dick Cheney played a key role in US anti-terror policy after 9/11
The head of the CIA has accused former US Vice-President Dick Cheney of concealing an intelligence programme from Congress, a top US senator says.
The existence of the programme, set up after 9/11, was hidden for eight years and its precise nature remains unclear.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein confirmed that CIA chief Leon Panetta told Congressional committees he had abandoned the project on hearing of it.
He said that Mr Cheney was behind the secrecy, Sen Feinstein said.
There has been no comment from Mr Cheney.
War of words
'Congress should have been told,' said Sen Feinstein
The California senator, who is chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, told Fox News on Sunday that Mr Panetta told her about the programme on 24 June, shortly after hearing about it, and said he had cancelled it.
The Bush administration may have broken the law, Sen Feinstein said, adding that Congress should never be kept in the dark, even though the country was still in shock after the 9/11 attacks.
"This is a big problem," she said.
"I understand the need of the day... but I think you weaken your case when you go outside the law."
But Texas Republican John Cornyn told Fox News that the allegations were part of political moves to distract attention from problems faced by Democrat leaders in Congress.
The claims come amid an increasingly bitter row between the CIA and Congress over whether key information was withheld about other aspects of the agency's operations.
'Capture or kill'
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has claimed that the CIA misled her about interrogation methods including water-boarding, while other senior Democrats have quoted Mr Panetta as admitting that his agency regularly misled Congress before he took office.
CIA chief Leon Panetta is said to have closed the programme
Details of the newly-revealed secret programme have still not been divulged.
However, the Wall Street Journal reports that the programme was an attempt to act on a 2001 presidential authorisation issued by President George W Bush to capture or kill al-Qaeda operatives.
Quoting current and former government officials, the newspaper says the CIA spent money on planning and possibly some training.
The New York Times, which broke the story about Mr Cheney's alleged role, also quoted officials as saying the programme was launched by anti-terror operatives at the CIA soon after the 2001 attacks, and involved planning and training but never became fully operational.
Another unnamed official told AP it was an embryonic intelligence-gathering effort, aimed at yielding intelligence that would be used to conduct covert operations abroad.
But the BBC's Kim Ghattas, in Washington, says there is some debate in the intelligence world about how significant the programme actually was.
Regardless of the details, the debate now is about the secrecy that surrounded the programme and whether by concealing it the Bush administration broke the law, our correspondent says.
Mr Panetta - who took over directorship of the CIA under President Obama's administration - is said to have learnt about the programme only on 23 June.
The next day he called an emergency meeting with congressional intelligence committees to tell them about its existence and to say that it was being cancelled.
The allegations come as Democrats in Congress are trying to push through new rules that would increase the number of members of Congress who are told about covert operations.
The White House is threatening to veto the bill, fearing that operational secrecy could be compromised.
The CIA has not commented on the reports of Mr Cheney's role.
"It's not agency practice to discuss what may or may not have been said in a classified briefing," said spokesman Paul Gimigliano.
"When a CIA unit brought this matter to Director Panetta's attention, it was with the recommendation that it be shared appropriately with Congress. That was also his view, and he took swift, decisive action to put it into effect."
A CIA spokesman insisted earlier this week that "it is not the policy or practice of the CIA to mislead Congress".
ROUND-UP OF OPINIONS ACROSS THE WEB
CIA chief Leon Panetta's accusation has got columnists, commentators and bloggers talking about the implications for Dick Cheney and the intelligence community.
Fox News's Congress correspondent Chad Pergram wonderswhat the news reveals about the relationship between the intelligence community and politicians:
All of this is baffling. But it points to one thing: a potential politicization of U.S. intelligence. Someone leaking the allegation that this program was hidden from Congress by Vice President Cheney is political. True or not, someone wanted to get that out. The fact that the gang of seven leaked its letter is political. Someone wanted that document publicized.
There will surely also be new demands for a broad investigation into how the Bush administration waged its war on terror. The White House has so far rejected demands for a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission to examine what happened. But for how much longer?
By law, intelligence committees are to be "kept fully and currently informed of the intelligence activities of the United States, including any significant anticipated intelligence activity." But an amendment leaves some leeway for judgment when it comes to "exceptionally sensitive matters". While few details about the program have emerged, we do know that the agency's current director, Leon Panetta, did not know about the program until June 23 when he was alerted by subordinatesimagine that conversationat which point he halted the program and alerted Congress in closed-door meetings the following day.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney's penchant for keeping secrets may permanently damage his legacy as a patriotic American. If Cheney were involved in purposefully misleading Congress, that could wind up being a huge black mark against the former vice president. It begs for a complete congressional investigation, so the American people know whether Cheney violated his oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
Republican strategist Mary Matalin said on CNNthat the reports about Cheney were a distraction designed to avert attention away from the policy struggles of the Obama administration:
The president's agenda is almost in shambles. His [poll] numbers are dropping. Isn't it coincidental Every time they get in trouble . . . they dredge up a Darth Vader story.
The media and the Democrat Congress is having conniption fits because they think that the Evil Bush Administration (TM) had a secret program to kill terrorist leaders and they didn't bother to tell Congress about it ...Oh, no! Bush and Cheney didn't support the operation? But that doesn't fit the narrative! Look, fellas, if we're going to have an evil plot against Congress, we're going to need Bush and Cheney involved, otherwise, how will we ever be able to impeach them? Um, retroactively? If I was going to have an operation against the nation's enemies and I needed to keep it secret, I wouldn't tell the drama queen, leaky Democrats until the last possible moment either.
In lieu of an investigation, officials are considering commemorating Cheney's vice presidency with an all-star memorial, to be broadcast on five networks and feature video clips of water boarding, sleep deprivation, e-mail mining, iPhone tapping and face shooting. Fans could Twitter their favorite Cheney security violations.
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