On Capitol Hill, a scathing letter has gone public. It’s from House Democrats who say the CIA hid intelligence from Congress and misled lawmakers for eight years after 9/11. Shockingly, the source is their boss, CIA Director Leon Panetta. It begs the question, should we expect the nation's top spy agency to keep some secrets?
CNN National Security Contributor and former Homeland Security Advisor to the Bush administration, Fran Townsend spoke to Joe Johns Thursday.
Joe Johns: Let's look at the letter that's been making the rounds so far, it says recently you testified that you've determined that top CIA officials have concealed significant actions from Congress from 2001 to this week. This comes from six democratic members of congress. What do you make of that letter?
Townsend: You know, Joe, I think because of the controversy over the Nancy Pelosi briefings, people are going to put these things together. This morning I spoke to both White House and CIA senior officials who confirm to me that these two issues, the Pelosi briefings, which Panetta made perfectly clear she had been briefed honestly and fully and this issue are completely unrelated. These are two separate issues. What happens is oftentimes the CIA and other agencies will go up and do briefings. They'll go back and realize they inadvertently left information out. Things they were unaware of that they didn't tell Congress. You want them to come back up. I suspect what happened here is, they realized there was something that was not included in the briefing and they did the right thing – they notified the Congress. We got to be careful with Congress issuing letters on intelligence matters and playing politics with the intelligence community. It may have just the opposite effect of what they want, which is full and complete information.
Johns: Let’s dig a little deeper on that. If you step away, back away from it, you know one thing, Pelosi challenged the veracity of the CIA. She challenged the fact that they were being truthful. Now you look at this letter that comes out. Even though we don't know all of the between-the-lines information, does it look like she is vindicated? Should she be vindicated? Or does it just look like her colleagues in the House are trying to make it look like she's vindicated.
Townsend: I think it's the latter, Joe. I think her colleagues are playing politics with this to try to make her look vindicated. CIA issued a statement through a spokesman yesterday making clear that Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, stood by his statement issued in May related to the Nancy Pelosi briefing. That's done. It's clear that she was briefed. It is clear CIA fulfilled their obligations there. This is a separate matter. That’s why I say it's very dangerous for the House of Democrats to be playing politics with the intelligence community; when you want them to do, if they’ve made a mistake as an oversight matter, is come up and tell you about it. I really think this is a pretty dangerous game they're playing.
Johns: There’s also a behind-the-scenes fight going on right now on Capitol Hill as to whether more people on the Hill should be privy to certain information that comes out of the intelligence community or whether just that gang of eight, certain specific individuals on Capitol Hill who get to see this stuff, should continue to see the stuff. Do you think that’s part of the politics of this letter coming out?
Townsend: I think you're right to raise it. I suspect it is. We should tell our viewers that the administration has issued a statement that the president’s senior advisor will recommend he veto the legislation if the briefing numbers are expanded. The reason for that is, we understand the more people that know, the more likely it is that critical information and classified information will leak. It's very dangerous. What you want is an effective oversight by the people who know the most and have responsibility in the area. That’s why there's the gang of eight. But you don't need 40 members all knowing this critical and classified information that may put lives at risk if it leaks.