House Probe of CIA Plan Could Lead to Showdown Between Cheney, Democrats

Vice President Dick Cheney has long been a target of Democrats for his role in developing and implementing the Bush White House's anti-terror policies, and Democratic legislators soon may get a chance to hold his feet to the fire over a secret proposal for a CIA hit squad.

The proposal never got off the ground, and President Obama's CIA director, Leon Panetta, canceled the plan last month after learning of its existence.

But Democrats in Congress have raised objections to the news that Cheney years ago reportedly directed the agency not to inform Congress about the proposal to train teams to kill Al Qaeda leaders abroad. The House Intelligence Committee announced Friday that it will launch an investigation to determine whether laws were broken.

Some congressional analysts, however, warn that if Democrats try to put Cheney on the hot seat, they risk blowback because of Americans' apparent ambivalence about Cheney's take-no-prisoners approach to fighting terrorism.

"I can't think of a situation better than to cross swords with congressional Democrats," Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University and a congressional scholar, told FOXNews.com. "As far as Cheney is concerned, his natural constituency is conservative Republicans, and they would rally to his side. This increases his stature."

And Cheney still would hold leverage if he defied an invitation or subpoena to appear, Baker said.

"It would put Cheney in the position of standing up to the bullies on Capitol Hill," he said.

Panetta told the House and Senate intelligence committees about the Bush-era CIA plan June 24, a day after he first learned of the operation and canceled it himself.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Tex., chairman of the House committee, said in a statement Friday the probe "will focus on the core issue of how the congressional intelligence committees and Congress are kept fully and currently informed."

But Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill, added that if the investigation finds that Cheney ordered Congress not to be informed of the plan, "there is reason to believe that is a significant violation of the National Security Act."

"We'll follow that thread where it takes us and determine if there's reason to refer the issue to the Justice Department or clarify the laws regarding notification," she said.

The National Security Act requires, with rare exceptions, that Congress be informed of covert activities, though only the committee leaders and party leaders in the House and Senate are brought into the loop.

If lawmakers are considering inviting or serving a subpoena to the former vice president to discuss his role in the program, they would be wise to note that Cheney's approval ratings rose this year after sparring publicly with the Obama administration over its national security policies. Cheney has argued the new administration's policies are making the country less safe.

At a hearing, Cheney could make it a "moot court on whether or not the Obama administration is seriously interested in preventing terrorist attacks."

Baker said he doesn't believe that Democrats would be deterred by those risks because they're under pressure from their base to go after Cheney and other Bush administration officials. But they would go after Cheney at their own peril, he said.

"I think there's a serious danger they're overplaying their hand," he said, adding that he believes Cheney could win support among swing voters as a result of an investigation targeting him. "I see it as a situation that Cheney could exploit to his own advantage."