The secret CIA program that was withheld from Congress was designed to find and capture or kill senior al-Qaeda leadership at close range rather than through air strikes, government officials said.
The now canceled counterterrorism intelligence program has stirred controversy among legislators demanding to know what it entailed and why it was kept secret from Congress for eight years after going into the planning stages shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
One Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said CIA Director Leon Panetta told them that former Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the program be kept secret and that CIA directors agreed, placing Cheney squarely at the center of the controversy.
"He was told the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to the Congress," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "I think that is a problem, obviously."
But in an interview with NPR, former CIA Director Michael Hayden disputed that claim, saying he was never told not to brief Congress about the CIA's secret counterterrorism program.
"I never felt I had any impediment in briefing Congress," Hayden said.
Panetta canceled the program in June. In a hastily arranged classified briefing to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees last month, the CIA director said he himself found out about the program in June and believed Congress should have been informed of it long ago.
The Associated Press quoted government officials as saying that the CIA program never got off the ground and that Panetta told lawmakers there was no indication that there was anything illegal or inappropriate about the effort itself.
The Wall Street Journal reported today that the secret program that was meant to kill or capture al-Qaeda leaders was an attempt to carry out a presidential finding authorized in 2001 by President George W. Bush.
Democrats on Capitol Hill say they will investigate the spy agency's failure to inform lawmakers about the secret program.
"The executive branch of government should not create programs like these programs and keep Congress in the dark," said Majority Whip Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." "To have a massive program that is concealed from the leaders in Congress is not only inappropriate -- it could be illegal."
There's been no comment from Cheney, but the former vice president's allies say the CIA did not need to brief Congress because the program never went beyond the planning stages.
"The CIA is in the secrecy business. And what I hear from the Democratic members of Congress is they want the CIA to tell more of them what's going on," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., on CNN's "State of the Union." "The best way to ruin a secrecy business is to tell."
The controversy comes as the CIA and the Bush-era policies face multiple investigations.
Sources say Attorney General Eric Holder is likely to appoint a special prosecutor for a criminal investigation into whether CIA interrogators broke the law and tortured captured terrorists, going beyond the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, like waterboarding, approved by the Bush administration.
Officials say the appointment of a special prosecutor is likely, raising the possibility of high-profile prosecutions of career CIA operatives.