The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, July 14:

In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the CIA reportedly launched a secret plan to capture or kill al-Qaeda leaders at close range. It’s not clear how far this counterterrorism effort advanced.

CIA Director Leon Panetta learned of the plan in recent weeks and canceled it.

End of story? Not quite.

Democratic leaders in Congress are livid because their members in charge of intelligence oversight were not informed of the program. They have been told by Panetta that Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the CIA not to tell Congress, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “We were kept in the dark. That’s something that should never, ever happen again,” said Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Withholding such information from Congress “is a big problem because the law is very clear.”

Agreed. House and Senate oversight committees were established more than 30 years ago because of abuses committed by U.S. intelligence agencies. The committees serve an essential function – so the legislative branch can keep a check on the executive.

There’s a lot we don’t know about this program, and how and why Congress was kept in the dark by the Bush administration. And like a good spy novel, there’s quite a subplot here. Politics has gotten dangerously entwined with national security.

Democratic leaders have been pushing for a “Truth Commission” to investigate the response of the Bush administration to the Sept. 11 attacks. Some Democrats believe that the administration abused its broad authority in the war on terror, particularly in its use of harsh interrogation techniques.

To his credit, President Barack Obama has resisted the idea of a commission, saying that the country needs to look forward. He has shown little interest in refighting the political battles of the last eight years. Attorney General Eric Holder, though, is reported to be pondering the naming of a prosecutor to probe the interrogation practices. We think the sagest advice on all this came earlier this year from Panetta, who warned that the nation pays a price when political leaders “start to use these issues as political clubs to beat each other with.” Panetta urged Congress to “stay focused on the present, to stay focused on the future and to stay focused on those things that may threaten the United States of America.”

In other words: America, keep your powder dry. Don’t get distracted.

Now, a directive from the vice president to withhold information from Congress – if such a directive was issued – would be very serious business. The intelligence oversight committees in Congress are the right place to investigate those claims. They can determine whether Cheney ordered the CIA to keep Congress in the dark and whether his actions were legal. If there is clear evidence of wrongdoing, that can be forwarded to the Justice Department.

The members of the intelligence committees are entrusted with powerful information that is critical to the nation’s security. Democrats have leaders, such as Feinstein, who seem to take this responsibility very seriously. And they have leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who seem to see political opportunity at every turn.

Find the truth. Keep your powder dry.

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