updated 7/17/2009 3:36:20 PM ET 2009-07-17T19:36:20

The House Intelligence Committee will investigate whether the CIA broke the law by not telling Congress earlier about a secret program to deploy hit teams to kill individual al-Qaida members, the committee chairman said Friday.

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CIA Director Leon Panetta told the committee about the program on June 24, and said he had only learned of the program a day earlier. He also said he canceled it himself.

By law, the House and Senate intelligence committees must be kept informed of significant intelligence activities or anticipated activities.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat, announced the investigation in a statement Friday.

The committee will likely focus on how much was spent on the effort, whether any training was conducted and whether any officials traveled in association with the program, a congressional official said. Those factors would determine whether the program had progressed enough to require congressional notification.

Sources: Tenet tried to kill program
Former intelligence officials said that in 2004 then CIA Director George Tenet terminated the program, but then his successors resurrected the plan.

Tenet ended the program because the agency could not work out its practical details, the officials told The Associated Press. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified program.

Porter Goss, who replaced Tenet in 2005, restarted the program, the former officials said. By the time Michael Hayden succeeded Goss as CIA chief in 2006 the effort was again flagging because of practical challenges.

Panetta drove the final stake into the effort in June after learning about the program. He called an emergency meeting with the House and Senate Intelligence committees the next day, informing lawmakers about the program and saying that as vice president Dick Cheney had directed the CIA not to inform Congress about the operation.

The CIA declined to comment on the officials' comments.

Drones reportedly became better option
One former senior intelligence official said the idea never quite died because it was a capability — the details of which remain classified — that the CIA wanted in its arsenal. But as time wore on, the official said, its need became less urgent.

Another former official said that the CIA's reliance on foreign intelligence services and on drone-launched missile strikes proved over time to be less risky yet effective in targeting al-Qaida chiefs for death or capture. President George W. Bush authorized the killing of al-Qaida leaders in 2001.

According to one congressional official, the agency spent more than $1 million over the eight years that the CIA considered launching the hit teams. The official would not detail the exact amount or how it was spent.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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