According to both officials, any intelligence program of “great sensitivity” is first approved by the White House after a series of meetings. In any such situation, once the administration decides to pursue a covert program, there is discussion on whether Congress needs to be briefed, the officials said.

President George W. Bush “delegated” then-Vice President Cheney to chair many of the meetings that followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the officials said…

Both sources said the program that Panetta discussed fell under a presidential finding that broadly authorized covert counterterrorism activities. They said Congress had been briefed on that finding in the fall of 2001, and there was no requirement to brief lawmakers on a program that had not been implemented.

“When it goes operational, then you brief them,” one of the former officials said.