Democrats slam Cheney

WASHINGTON: Democrats Sunday lashed out at former vice president Dick Cheney, accusing him of abusing his power, amid reports he ordered the CIA to withhold information from Congress about a secret counter terrorism program.

Lawmakers vowed to hold hearings on the nature of the alleged top secret program and efforts to keep members of the US legislature in the dark.

"This is a question of whether the former vice president of the United States denied certain sensitive information to the intelligence leaders in Congress. That is not acceptable," said a senior member of the US Senate, Democrat Kent Conrad, who called the alleged failure to notify Congress about the program "a serious breach."

Speaking Sunday on CNN television, Conrad said CIA notification to key members of Congress about its secret programs "is required by law. That's a serious matter."

Meanwhile Representative Anna Eshoo, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, said she would call for the panel to hire an outside counsel to investigate the issue.

"We have to know who gave the order for this, who gave the order to conceal this, where did they draw the money for this," the Democrat told the Washington Post in reports published Sunday.

Eshoo said the committee may have to use its subpoena power to interview some officials who oversaw intelligence issues during the Bush administration.

Officials were vague Sunday about the precise nature of the highly secret program.

But an intelligence official speaking to the Washington Post said the project remained in the planning stages and never crossed the agency's threshold for reporting to the administration and congressional overseers.

Two former agency officials told the daily it involved a series of proposals designed to provide US intelligence agencies with a "needed capability" -- without providing details as to what was meant.

The latest proposal was aired in the spring of 2008 but was not carried out, the officials said, although they told The Post that it did not involve interrogations of detainees or surveillance of US-based communications.

Both were highly controversial practices that have been roundly condemned in many quarters, as the United States prosecuted its "war on terror" during the George W. Bush administration.

The New York Times, which first broke the story about the role alleged to have been played by Cheney in keeping the CIA program under wraps, reported that Central Intelligence Agency chief, Leon Panetta, ended the program when he first learned of its existence on June 23.

Panetta is reported to have revealed Cheney's role in a closed briefing one day later to the Senate and House intelligence committees.

"Because this program never went fully operational and hadn't been briefed as Panetta thought it should have been, his decision to kill it was neither difficult nor controversial," an intelligence official told the newspaper, speaking on condition of anonymity.

News of the alleged program came as lawmakers from both President Barack Obama's Democratic Party and opposition Republicans are in bitter dispute over whether the CIA informed Congress adequately and comprehensively about sensitive programs.

In May, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi charged that the US spy agency misled lawmakers in 2002 about interrogation techniques widely seen as torture, including "waterboarding," a simulated drowning method used on terror suspects.

On Sunday, senior Republican Senator Judd Gregg conceded that in his view, "if somebody told the CIA not to inform the appropriate members of Congress on information, that's wrong."

Nevertheless Gregg said "that isn't a reason to disassemble the CIA and make them a whipping child in the middle."

The Republic lawmaker said the controversy pointed to a "continued attack on the CIA and our intelligence gathering organizations" which he said "is undermining the morale and capacity of those organizations to gather intelligence."