Democrats Say Panetta Admits CIA Misled Them
Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon E. Panetta has told lawmakers that the agency "concealed significant actions" from Congress, according to a letter released Wednesday from seven Democratic lawmakers.
The letter also contends that Mr. Panetta said CIA officials have misled Congress since 2001.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes sent a separate letter on Tuesday to the top Republican on his committee saying that Mr. Panetta's appearance led him to conclude that the CIA had "affirmatively lied" to the committee. Mr. Reyes, a Texas Democrat, said the issues Mr. Panetta disclosed to the committee may lead to a full committee investigation.
"I believe that CIA has, in the vast majority of matters, told the truth," Mr. Reyes said in a statement. "But in rare instances, certain officers have not adhered to the high standards held, as a rule, by the CIA with respect to truthfulness in reporting."
Neither letter described the nature of the actions hidden. Both lawmakers and the CIA declined to provide details. The murky circumstances surrounding the allegations make it hard to assess the claims and counterclaims of both sides.
The public tussle nonetheless threatens to further undermine Congressional relations with the CIA. Congress exercises oversight over U.S. intelligence agencies. The House and Senate intelligence panels, created in the late 1970s to prevent a repeat of the Nixon-era domestic-spying abuses, often receive classified briefings in private.
The relationship between the CIA and Congress grew poisonous over the course of the Bush administration after revelations concerning programs such as CIA's coerced interrogations.
All but two members of each of the House and Senate intelligence panels at the time knew nothing of them, though the four top House and Senate lawmakers were informed. Mr. Panetta has vowed to repair relations with Congress.
CIA spokesman George Little said, "It is not the policy or practice of the CIA to mislead Congress." Mr. Little said the CIA itself "took the initiative to notify the oversight committees" about the lapses. Mr. Panetta brought the issue to lawmakers' attention on June 24.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat who signed the letter, gave the director "credit for coming up and meeting with us and informing us," adding that Mr. Panetta had learned of the matter the day before the June 24 briefing but said she was deeply disturbed that the CIA actions had been concealed from all lawmakers.
Some U.S. officials disputed the Democrats' letter's characterization of Mr. Panetta's comments. One said Mr. Panetta informed the committee of a matter "that hadn't been appropriately briefed in the past" but didn't attribute any motives.
A spokesman for Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the House Intelligence Committee's top Republican, countered the Democrats' characterization of Mr. Panetta's June 24 statements to the panel. "I don't think he would share that particular recollection," said Mr. Hoekstra's spokesman Jamal Ware.
The Democratic lawmakers' letter, which they sent to Mr. Panetta, asked him to revise his May 15 statement to the intelligence panel, in which he said: "It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and values." Mr. Little said Mr. Panetta stands by that statement.
Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who chairs a spending subcommittee on intelligence and was among the lawmakers who signed the letter said in an interview that the information that was hidden from Congress was not over a small issue, adding "it's serious stuff."
He added, "Our reason for writing the letter in the first place has to do really with the integrity of Congress and the balance of powers."
The release of these letters is the latest twist in a struggle between House Democrats and the CIA. Earlier this year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the CIA of misleading her in a 2002 briefing on interrogation practices.
Ms. Pelosi has said repeatedly she wasn't told then that the agency had used the technique of waterboarding, or simulated drowning, which critics say is torture. The agency released a document that said Ms. Pelosi had been briefed on the treatment of "high value" detainee Abu Zubaydah, who at the time of the briefing had been waterboarded more than 80 times. Republicans have repeatedly challenged Ms. Pelosi's statement.
The flap over Mr. Panetta's recent disclosures reignites a broader debate between Congress and the executive branch over the limits of executive power. The release of the letters came the day before the House is scheduled to debate an intelligence bill that will test those limits once again.
The White House issued a veto threat on Wednesday over provisions in the bill that would require more expansive briefings of intelligence committee members on covert actions, taking a position against Democratic lawmakers and in line with what the Bush administration had advocated.
The provision would raise "significant executive privilege concerns," according to a White House policy statement. The broader bill contains several measures to bolster Congressional oversight of intelligence activities.
Mr. Holt said he was surprised Mr. Obama continued to support the practice of more limited briefings.