The House Intelligence Committee said Friday it will investigate whether the CIA broke the law by not informing Congress promptly about a secret program to deploy teams of killers to target al-Qaida leaders.
Committee Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said the hit team plan, which was never carried out, is among several intelligence operations that will be investigated as part of a broad inquiry into the CIA’s handling of disclosures to Congress about its secret activities.
"I intend to make this investigation fair and thorough, and it is my goal that it will not become a distraction to the men and women of the CIA," Reyes said.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said the agency shares that goal and will work closely with the committee on its review.
The House Intelligence Committee will examine concerns that the CIA failed to inform the Senate and House Intelligence committees about former President George W. Bush’s wiretapping program, harsh interrogation techniques and the destruction of interrogation videotapes, according to a committee aide.
The inquiry will also focus on the how the CIA handled disclosures about the 2001 downing of a small plane carrying American missionaries over Peru and on other cases, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The CIA is obligated under law to keep Congress "fully and currently" informed of intelligence activities through classified briefings.
Separately from the committee’s inquiry, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., will head an investigation into the details of the CIA plan to send out teams of killers, she said Friday.
"Why was there such a high-level determination to keep it secret? And how may it have changed over all these years? And why was it immediately ended as soon as the current CIA director learned of it?" she said, describing the outlines of what her subcommittee plans to delve into.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the senior Republican on the committee, criticized the investigation as "partisan, political theater." He said he would support a "balanced review," but contended Democrats are prematurely accusing the CIA of breaking the law.
"At no time will the Republicans of this committee agree to or take part in congressional Democrats efforts to tear down the CIA to provide cover for Speaker Pelosi," Hoekstra said in a statement Friday.
He was referring to a frequent GOP talking point accusing House Democrats of trying to bolster House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s accusation that the CIA lied to her about its harsh interrogation program.
The intelligence committee’s investigation was triggered by CIA Director Leon Panetta’s June 24 disclosure about the hit team program in an emergency briefing he called a day after he canceled the program after learning about it the same day.
The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center brought the program to Panetta’s attention last month because it wanted to begin training the teams, according to a government official familiar with the matter. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
The effort to develop hit teams to target al-Qaida members, rather than using airborne armed drone strikes or foreign intelligence services, has existed on and off since 2001 but it was never carried out.
"The program (Panetta) killed was never fully operational and never took a single terrorist off the battlefield," CIA spokesman George Little said Thursday. "Those are facts he shared with Congress. We’ve had a string of successes against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, and that program didn’t contribute to any of them."