WASHINGTON // The Obama administration is again facing pressure to investigate the national security policies of its predecessor after it was revealed that Dick Cheney allegedly ordered the CIA to withhold from the US Congress information on a highly classified programme to capture or kill al Qa'eda operatives.
Senate Democrats have been highly - and very publicly - critical of the vice president in recent days, and at least two have suggested he may have broken the law by instructing the intelligence agency not to brief legislators on the counterterrorism programme, keeping them uninformed for eight years. "There is accountability in our constitution," Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, said over the weekend on the ABC show This Week.
"The executive branch of government cannot create programmes like these programmes and keep Congress in the dark. To have a massive programme that is concealed from the leaders in Congress is not only inappropriate, it could be illegal." Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, has likewise suggested Mr Cheney may have broken the law. Leon Panetta, the CIA director, reportedly cancelled the programme, which was begun after the September 11 attacks, after learning of it last month; one legislator who sits on the House of Representatives' intelligence committee and who was briefed on it, Jan Schakowsky, said Mr Panetta was "stunned" to have been told of it so late. Mr Panetta has conceded that Congress, which by law is to be kept fully informed of covert activities, was not properly informed.
The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the programme centred around ways to capture and kill al Qa'eda operatives, but further details have yet to emerge. The new revelations have set off another round of partisan bickering over Bush-era policies, with some Republicans accusing Democrats of politicising the matter and subverting national security, which, they note, Mr Cheney was duty-bound to protect.
Furthermore, some Republicans said, the secret programme was never fully implemented, so Congress did not necessarily have to be told of it. Judd Gregg, a Senate Republican from New Hampshire, said during a Sunday political talk-show appearance that he too believed it was not appropriate for the information to be kept from Congress. But, at the same time, he accused Democrats of undermining the CIA and intelligence gathering, something he predicted would "harm us in the long run".
Barack Obama, the US president, has repeatedly said he wants to look forward, without rehashing the controversial counterterrorism policies of George W Bush - some of which he has halted and some of which he has maintained. At the same time, though, Mr Obama has insisted that no one is above the law, leaving some room for formal inquiries. One such investigation now seems more likely. In something of a turnabout, Eric Holder, the attorney general, is reported to favour the appointment of a prosecutor to investigate the CIA's interrogation programme, which employed harsh techniques such as waterboarding that the Obama administration has said amounted to torture.
That would be a step embraced by human rights groups, which have long been calling for a formal criminal inquiry of certain Bush administration actions. Jameel Jaffer, of the ACLU's National Security Project, said in a statement "it is time to finally confront the gross human rights abuses of the last administration". "Initiating a criminal investigation is a crucial step towards restoring the moral authority of the United States abroad and restoring the rule of law at home," he said.
In another development, Mr Obama has ordered his national security team to "collect the facts for me that are known" about an alleged massacre of prisoners in Afghanistan in late 2001, after US military action that toppled the Taliban. While the killings, by US-backed local Afghan forces, have been previously reported, The New York Times quoted activists in a recent article saying the Bush administration had repeatedly discouraged a full investigation of what happened there.
In an interview scheduled to air last night on CNN, Mr Obama said his staff would investigate that charge and then decide how to proceed, including perhaps with a more formal, and full, inquiry. "I think that there are responsibilities that all nations have, even in war," the president said. "And if it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of laws of war, then I think that, you know, we have to know about that."