WASHINGTON — The House Intelligence Committee launched an investigation Friday into a secret CIA effort to assemble paramilitary teams to kill Al Qaeda leaders -- a probe that will focus in part on whether agency officials were instructed by former Vice President Dick Cheney to hide the program from Congress.
The program, launched after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was ended by new agency Director Leon E. Panetta last month, shortly after he learned about it and before it became operational.
The inquiry is aimed at determining whether officials violated laws that require the executive branch to keep Congress fully informed of "significant" intelligence activities. It opens a new front in the scrutiny of CIA counter-terrorism efforts under the Bush administration.
Members of Congress didn't learn about the program until June 24, when Panetta arranged emergency briefings with the intelligence committees in both chambers. Panetta told lawmakers then that Cheney had instructed the CIA not to share information about the program with Congress.
Aides to Cheney have not responded to requests for comment. But former Bush administration officials have disputed characterizations of Cheney's involvement, saying that his comments came early in the program and that he merely encouraged the CIA not to discuss the effort until it was clear that it would go forward.
CIA officials struggled for years to overcome legal and logistical obstacles, including who should be selected for the missions, where those people would be trained and based, and how they might be extracted if they were successful.
After shelving the program several times, agency officials revived the idea in recent years in hopes that the teams could also gather intelligence on the ground in Pakistan that could provide new clues to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders.
The House probe comes at a time of intense fighting on Capitol Hill over Bush-era counter-terrorism measures. Earlier this year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) accused the CIA of misleading Congress about brutal interrogation methods employed after the 9/11 attacks.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House committee, called the investigation a "partisan plan" by Democrats to provide political cover for Pelosi.
"They are putting their partisan conclusions ahead of the facts," Hoekstra said, noting that Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair indicated earlier this week that he had agreed there was no need to brief Congress on the program because it never got off the ground.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano noted that committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) had pledged to avoid allowing the investigation to become a "distraction" to CIA employees, and said that the agency would "work closely with the committee on this review."