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What did the CIA lie to Congress about, and where was Cheney?

July 10, 2009 |  8:33 am

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Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee set off a political bombshell this week. In a leaked letter, they disclosed that CIA Director Leon Panetta -- four months after taking office -- learned that his agency had misled Congress about a special project. He canceled the program and scheduled closed-door meetings with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees the next day to brief them.

Ever since, observers of the national security scene have been puzzling over the story. Aside from the disturbing -- but not particularly surprising news -- that someone at the CIA sat on this news for four months after getting a new boss, the question is: what classified program did Panetta close down?

Early speculation rested on waterboarding, a technique the Bush administration used in interrogating terrorists. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had earlier accused the CIA of misleading her on use of the controversial practice. But President Obama has already banned waterboarding, so it's not something Panetta would need to shut down.

Now, some are quoting the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, who in March alleged that a secret army of CIA operatives reported to former Vice President Dick Cheney. In remarks he has not substantiated in print, Hersh talked about "a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office.... It's an executive assassination ring essentially, and it's been going on and on and on."

Cheney makes a convenient target. He's already enraged Democrats for suggesting that Obama's policies are making the United States more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In fact, Panetta accused Cheney of hoping America would be attacked again, just to prove his point. As a result, some Republicans argue that the Democrats are just floating the Cheney rumor to deflect attention away from Pelosi's credibility on the issue.

Others argue that there is less there than meets the eye. As one unnamed former intelligence official told the Washington Post, "This characterization of something that began in 2001 and continued uninterrupted for eight years is just wrong. Honest men would question that characterization. It was more off and on." If the nature of the program could be revealed, said the source, it would be seen as "no big deal."

Either way, look for the guessing game to continue.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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