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CIA misled Congress, but about what?

Director Leon Panetta last month learned that his agency had misled lawmakers about a program, and canceled it. Speculation runs rampant.

July 11, 2009|Johanna Neuman

WASHINGTON — Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee triggered a political mystery this week when they leaked a letter disclosing that CIA Director Leon E. Panetta -- four months after taking office -- last month learned his agency had misled Congress about a special project. Panetta canceled the program, and he scheduled closed-door meetings with the House and Senate intelligence panels the next day to brief them. But what was the program?

Early speculation focused on waterboarding. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has accused the CIA of misleading her about use of the technique to interrogate terrorists under the Bush administration. But President Obama had already banned waterboarding, so it was not something Panetta would have needed to shut down.

Others pointed to months-old speculation, fueled by reporter Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker magazine, that a secret army of CIA operatives had been reporting to former Vice President Dick Cheney. But such reports have never been substantiated, and Cheney makes a convenient target. He's already enraged Democrats by suggesting that Obama's policies are making the United States more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Panetta has accused Cheney of hoping America would be attacked just to prove Cheney's point.

Others argue that there is less here 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.


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