Dick Cheney played a key role in US anti-terror policy after 9/11
The head of the CIA has accused former US Vice-President Dick Cheney of concealing an intelligence programme from Congress, a top US senator says.
The existence of the programme, set up after 9/11, was hidden for eight years and even now its nature is not known.
Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein confirmed CIA chief Leon Panetta told Congressional committees he had abandoned the project on hearing of it.
He said that Mr Cheney was behind the secrecy, Sen Feinstein said.
There has been no comment from Mr Cheney.
War of words
The California senator, who is chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, told Fox News Sunday that Mr Panetta told her about the programme to her on 24 June, shortly after hearing about it, and said he had cancelled it.
The Bush administration may have broken the law, Sen Feinstein said, adding that Congress should never be kept in the dark, even though the country was still in shock after the 9/11 attacks.
“This is a big problem,” she said.
“I understand the need of the day… but I think you weaken your case when you go outside the law.”
But Texas Republican John Cornyn told Fox News that the allegations were part of political moves to distract attention from problems faced by Democrat leaders in Congress.
The claims come amid an increasingly bitter row between the CIA and Congress over whether key information was withheld about other aspects of the agency’s operations.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has claimed that the CIA misled her about interrogation methods including waterboarding, while other senior Democrats have quoted Mr Panetta as admitting that his agency regularly misled Congress before he took office.
Panetta is said to have closed the programme when he discovered it
Details of the newly-revealed secret programme have still not been divulged, but sources say it did not relate to the CIA’s rendition programme, interrogation methods or a controversial domestic surveillance project.
Officials quoted by the New York Times say the programme was launched by anti-terror operatives at the CIA soon after the 2001 attacks, and involved planning and training but never became fully operational.
Another unnamed official told AP it was an embryonic intelligence-gathering effort, aimed at yielding intelligence that would be used to conduct covert operations abroad.
But the BBC’s Kim Ghattas, in Washington, says there is some debate in the intelligence world about how significant the programme actually was.
In the end, regardless of the details the debate now is about the secrecy that surrounded the programme and whether by keeping it secret the Bush administration broke the law, our correspondent says.
Mr Panetta – who took over directorship of the CIA under President Obama’s administration – is said to have learnt about the programme only on 23 June.
The next day he called an emergency meeting with congressional intelligence committees to tell them about its existence and to say that it was being cancelled.
The allegations come as Democrats in Congress are trying to push through new rules that would increase the number of members of Congress who are told about covert operations.
The White House is threatening to veto the bill, fearing that operational secrecy could be compromised.
The CIA has not commented on the reports of Mr Cheney’s role.
“It’s not agency practice to discuss what may or may not have been said in a classified briefing,” said spokesman Paul Gimigliano.
“When a CIA unit brought this matter to Director Panetta’s attention, it was with the recommendation that it be shared appropriately with Congress. That was also his view, and he took swift, decisive action to put it into effect.”
A CIA spokesman insisted earlier this week that “it is not the policy or practice of the CIA to mislead Congress.”