WASHINGTON - Democratic lawmakers criticized former vice president Dick Cheney on Sunday for allegedly ordering that a CIA counter-terrorism program be kept secret from congressional leaders, with two senators questioning the legality of such secrecy.
A top Democrat called for an investigation.
Exactly what the secret intelligence program was remained a mystery, but sources said the CIA had opened an internal inquiry.
It is unclear how wide an investigation lawmakers would like to see, but the latest controversy could fuel demands for an examination of the CIA's relationship with Congress during the Bush administration.
Congressional Democrats - in particular, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California - have accused the CIA of misleading Congress about key elements of its now-canceled harsh interrogation program, which included the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding.
Republicans, who have attacked Democrats for criticizing the CIA, are likely to be dead set against any such probe.
Also Sunday, GOP lawmakers criticized Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. for reportedly considering the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into accusations that the CIA exceeded Bush administration rules when using harsh interrogation techniques.
Democrats expressed support for Holder, but some continued to advocate their own alternatives to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by the Bush administration.
But Democrats were united in condemning Cheney for allegedly ordering the CIA not to reveal details of the still-secret intelligence program. A Cheney spokeswoman declined to comment.
CIA Director Leon E. Panetta canceled the program June 23, shortly after learning of it, and immediately called special sessions with lawmakers to discuss the terminated initiative.
Sources have refused to provide any details about what the program involved or what it was meant to achieve, but have said it was on a continuum between foreign intelligence collection and covert action. It was put in place in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, but never became fully operational.
"A lot of people thought they were Jason Bourne and came up with ideas," a former senior CIA officer said, referring to the fictional super-spy and government assassin. "There were programs that were kind of wild that were considered in 2001, but to my knowledge, within six months ... people kind of gave up on those ideas."
Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Panetta told congressional leaders that Cheney ordered the agency to withhold details of the program from Capitol Hill. She called that a "big problem."
"I think that if the intelligence committees had been briefed, they could have watched the program, they could have asked for regular reports on the program, they could have made judgments about the program as it went along," Feinstein said. "That was not the case, because we were kept in the dark. That's something that should never, ever happen again."
She called the failure to brief Congress "outside the law."
Although the law requires that congressional committees be "kept fully and currently informed" on intelligence activities, there is some latitude for both highly sensitive programs and routine ones.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate's majority whip, told ABC's This Week that Congress should investigate whether Cheney or others ordered that the program not be disclosed to lawmakers.
Congressional leaders can protect the existence of secret programs, Durbin said. Not disclosing the program, he added, violated the Constitution's system of checks and balances.
"To have a massive program that is concealed from leaders in Congress ... is not only inappropriate; it could be illegal," Durbin said.
Responding to Durbin, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the Republican whip, said lawmakers must not "jump to any conclusions" and must remember that Cheney had a responsibility to protect national security.
Republicans also argued that a decision to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogators risked undermining American security by unnecessarily weakening the intelligence community.
"This is high-risk stuff," Sen. John Cornyn, R- Texas, told Fox News. "Because if we chill the ability or the willingness of our intelligence operatives and others to get information that's necessary to protect America, there could be disastrous consequences."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the former Republican presidential nominee who has been highly critical of the Bush administration's interrogation practices, agreed that a special prosecutor should not be appointed.
"We all know that bad things were done. We all know that the operatives who did it, most likely, were under orders to do so," McCain said on NBC's Meet the Press. "For us to continue this and harm our image throughout the world, I agree with the president of the United States: It's time to move forward and not go back."
Among Democrats speaking Sunday, Durbin voiced the most unequivocal support for a special prosecutor.
"We don't want the attorney general to be afraid to ask questions when it comes to violations of the law," he said. "Those who followed the law, followed their directions [and] did it appropriately ... shouldn't be prosecuted. But those who went beyond it, those who broke the law, need to be held accountable. No one is above the law."