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.
Former spies and some political leaders are saying that a lack of trust between Congress and the CIA is putting the country's security in jeopardy.
"It's one of the last nails in the CIA's coffin. It's finished. It's over. It's done," said former Central Intelligence Agency operative Robert Baer, whose exploits in the Middle East were the model for George Clooney's role in "Syriana."
"I know I've been lied to," Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said.
The rift between Congress and the CIA has been so bitter that when analysts have headed to Capitol Hill, the agency gave them this stock response: "I'm sorry, but I will be unable to continue our dialogue if you continue to question my integrity or that of my agency."
"The danger is today that we might go too far," said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas. "And that could cause us to not have that critical bit of intelligence that could protect this country."
Not all intelligence experts agree.
"There's absolutely no reason to believe that congressional oversight will lead to terrorist attacks," said former counterterrorism official and ABC News consultant Richard Clarke. "And that's essentially what some people are saying -- morale will go down and we'll be risk averse, and we won't talk to the FBI, we won't do our jobs and we'll all die of terrorist attacks. That's way exaggerated."
Clarke added that the "CIA has become a master of saying to Congress, 'If you do your job and supervise us, it will hurt our morale. If our morale is hurt we won't be able to do our job.' That is largely a myth."
CIA insiders say they haven't seen anything like this since the 1970s, when the Church Committee probed extreme tactics, such as hiring the mafia to kill Cuba's Fidel Castro.
"We're heading back into this Frank Church atmosphere in this Senate and in this Congress, where, basically, where people use the CIA as a whipping boy," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.
The Church Committee led to congressional hearings that spawned new rules barring the FBI and CIA from sharing intelligence -- rules now blamed for allowing Sept. 11 hijackers to carry out their attacks.
"You have people running for the doors there, continue running for the doors, and it's going to hurt our national security," Baer said. "It's going to interfere with stopping another 9/11."
With rising criticism and poisoned relations with Congress, the agency's headquarters feel like a morgue, he says.
Another blow for morale could come if Holder goes ahead with criminal investigations into so-called enhanced interrogation tactics.
Republicans say the appointment of a special prosecutor and prosecutions of high-level career CIA operatives is a bad idea.
"This continued attack on the CIA and our intelligence-gathering organizations is undermining the morale and capacity of those organizations to gather intelligence," Gregg said.
The swirl of investigations seems to be exactly what President Obama has repeatedly said he does not want.
"I think that we should be looking forward, and not backwards. I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively," Obama said in April.
But looking backward is exactly what is happening. With a special prosecutor likely to be named and congressional Democrats preparing their own investigations, the debate over the Bush administration's actions after the Sept. 11 attacks remains front-and-center in Washington.