CIA Director Leon Panetta has terminated a "very serious" covert program the spy agency kept secret from Congress for eight years, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a House Intelligence subcommittee chairwoman, said Friday.
Schakowsky is pressing for an immediate committee investigation of the classified program, which has not been described publicly. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has said he is considering an investigation.
"The program is a very, very serious program and certainly deserved a serious debate at the time and through the years," Schakowsky told The Associated Press in an interview. "But now it's over."
Democrats revealed late Tuesday that Panetta had informed members of the House Intelligence Committee on June 24 that the spy agency had been withholding important information about a secret intelligence program begun after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Schakowsky described Panetta as "stunned" that he had not been informed of the program until nearly five months into his tenure as director.
Panetta had learned of the program only the day before informing the lawmakers, according to a U.S. intelligence official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity Friday because he was not authorized to discuss the program publicly.
Panetta has launched an internal probe at the CIA to determine why Congress was not told about the program. Exactly what the classified program entailed is still unclear.
The intelligence official said the program was "on-again/off-again" and that it was never fully operational, but he would not provide details.
Schakowsky, D-Ill., said Friday that the CIA and Bush administration consciously decided not to tell Congress.
"It's not as if this was an oversight and over the years it just got buried. There was a decision under several directors of the CIA and administration not to tell the Congress," she said.
Schakowsky, who chairs the Intelligence subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said in a Thursday letter to Reyes that the CIA's lying was systematic and inexcusable. The letter was obtained by The Associated Press on Friday.
She said Reyes indicated to her the committee would conduct a probe into whether the CIA violated the National Security Act, which requires, with rare exceptions, that Congress be informed of covert activities. She told AP she hopes to conduct at least part of the investigation for the committee.
She said this is the fourth time that she knows of that the CIA has misled Congress or not informed it in a timely manner since she began serving on the Intelligence Committee two and half years ago.
In 2008, the CIA inspector general revealed that the CIA had lied to Congress about the accidental shoot-down of American missionaries over Peru in 2001. In 2007, news reports disclosed that the CIA had secretly destroyed videotapes of interrogations of a terrorist suspect.
She would not describe the other incident.
Schakowsky said she thinks Panetta is changing the CIA for the better, adding that the failure to inform Congress was indicative of "contempt" the Bush administration and intelligence agencies under him held for Congress.
"Many times I felt it was an annoyance to them to have to come to us and answer our questions," she said. "There was an impatience and a contempt for the Congress."
Intel authorization bill
The House is expected to take up the 2010 intelligence authorization bill next week. It includes a provision that would require the White House to inform the entire committee about upcoming covert operations rather than just the "Gang of Eight" — the senior members from both parties on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and the Democratic and Republican leaders in both houses.
The White House this week threatened to veto the final version of the bill if it includes that provision.
Democratic aides said the language may be softened in negotiations with the Senate to address the White House's concern.
But Schakowsky said the wider briefings are the best remedy to avoiding future notification abuses.
Republicans charge that Democratic outrage about the Panetta revelation is just an attempt to provide political cover to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who in May accused the CIA of lying to her in 2002 about its use of waterboarding.
What Pelosi knew about the CIA's interrogation program and when she knew it — and why she did not object to it sooner — is expected to be emphasized by Republicans during debate over the intelligence bill.