WASHINGTON - A secret intelligence program cancelled last month by CIA Director Leon Panetta was meant to find and then capture or kill al-Qaida leaders at close range rather than target them with air strikes that risked civilian casualties, government officials with knowledge of the operation said Monday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the program, said the spy agency's program never got off the ground.

Panetta cancelled the effort on June 23 after learning of its existence, its failure to yield results, and that Congress had been unaware of the program since its inception in 2001, according to an official with direct knowledge of the plan.

That official said former President George W. Bush authorized killing al-Qaida leaders shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and Congress was made aware of that. However, the official said, Panetta also told members of Congress that according to notes that he had been given on the early months of the program, then-Vice-President Dick Cheney directed the CIA not to tell Congress specifics of the secret program.

Panetta told the committees there was no indication of anything illegal or inappropriate about the effort itself, the official said.

CIA directors since 2001 agreed with Cheney's decision not to inform Congress because the highly classified operation, described as "sporadic" and "embryonic," never found the intelligence needed to carry out a kill and was not considered a covert operation, according to a former intelligence official. That official also was not authorized to discuss the program and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Congress has a right to know everything the CIA does, but the president can by law limit those told about covert operations to just the top four members of the House and Senate from the two parties and the senior members of the intelligence committees. Democrats on the House intelligence committee are pushing for a legal provision that would require the president to brief both committees in their entirety more often, but the White House has threatened to veto that.

The Wall Street Journal, anonymously citing former intelligence officials, first reported Monday that the secret program was a plan to kill or capture al-Qaida operatives. The Journal's sources said the plan was an attempt to carry out a presidential finding authorized in 2001 by President George W. Bush.

The Journal said the agency spent money on planning and maybe some training for the highly classified effort, but it never became fully operational.

Most attempts to kill al-Qaida's leaders, believed to be hiding in Pakistan's troubled western border region, use armed drones because it is difficult terrain controlled by sometimes hostile armed tribes. Those strikes periodically have killed and injured innocent civilians and have caused outrage in Pakistan.

The government official said the CIA effort was meant to avoid such collateral damage.

Panetta revealed the CIA program to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in emergency briefings he called June 24 and told them he had begun an internal inquiry to determine why Congress, and he, had not been told sooner.

His private revelation ignited a storm of protests from Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee, who accused the CIA of lying to Congress. Some are calling for a congressional investigation.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, suggested that the Bush administration broke the law by concealing a CIA counterterror program from Congress. Feinstein said the Bush administration's failure to notify Congress about the 8-year-old counterterror program "is a big problem, because the law is very clear."

Congress should investigate the secrecy because "it could be illegal," said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, the party's second-ranking senator.

According to Feinstein, Panetta told Congress late last month that "he had just learned about the program, described it to us, indicated that he had cancelled it and ... did tell us that he was told that the vice-president had ordered that the program not be briefed to the Congress."

"We were kept in the dark. That's something that should never, ever happen again," said Feinstein.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn, said he agreed with Feinstein that the CIA should keep Congress informed. Cornyn said, however, that the new assertion "looks to me suspiciously like an attempt to provide political cover" to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, and other Democrats. Pelosi has accused the CIA of lying to her in 2002 about its use of waterboarding, or simulated drowning, which many people, including President Barack Obama, consider torture.

Feinstein and Cornyn spoke on "Fox News Sunday." Durbin appeared on ABC's "This Week."

The allegation that Vice-President Dick Cheney ordered the program kept secret from Congress came amid word that Attorney General Eric Holder is contemplating opening a criminal investigation of possible CIA torture. A Justice Department official told The Associated Press that Holder will decide in the next few weeks whether to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration's harsh interrogation practices. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on a pending matter.

A move to appoint a criminal prosecutor is certain to stir partisan bickering that could prove a distraction to Obama's efforts to push ambitious health care and energy reform.

Obama has resisted an effort by congressional Democrats to establish a "truth commission," saying the nation should be "looking forward and not backward."

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