Rupert Cornwell: The US needs a truth and reconciliation inquiry

Dick Cheney may be out of office, harbouring no future ambitions other than writing his memoirs. But as this latest row involving the secrecy-obsessed former vice-president and the CIA demonstrates, he casts scarcely less of a shadow over the Obama administration than he did over that of George W Bush before him.

The charge that he directly ordered the agency to conceal from Congress a secret counterterrorism programme is potentially extremely serious. That it was made by none other than the CIA's present director Leon Panetta, who has before defended the agency's past behaviour, makes it more serious still.

Yet it is fitting that the charge has surfaced just as the Justice Department may be moving towards naming a special prosecutor to investigate the alleged use of torture, the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" of which Mr Cheney was a leading advocate, by CIA personnel against captured terrorist suspects after the September 2001 attacks here.

None less than the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has accused the agency of failing to tell Congress that in 2002 it was already using waterboarding against some detainees. But her charge has been dismissed by Mr Panetta. The new controversy could scarcely be worse timed, a divisive distraction as Mr Obama is trying to push through vital but contentious legislation to reform health care, energy policy and financial market regulation.

But it must be addressed. The question is how. For decades, ever since the 1970s Church Committee investigated earlier abuses by the CIA, the agency's accountability has been a problem. Legally, it is bound to keep the intelligence committees of Congress, "fully and currently" informed of its activities. But it has often been less than candid for fear of leaks (although these have been few and far between). The new row will only increase pressure on the agency to be more forthcoming, perhaps to the detriment of its performance.

There will surely also be new demands for a broad investigation into how the Bush administration waged its war on terror. The White House has so far rejected demands for a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission to examine what happened. But for how much longer?