WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has ordered the Senate’s chief law enforcement officer to conduct a forensic examination of top-secret computers used for a study of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, escalating an unprecedented battle over legislative oversight of the spy agency.
In a letter sent Wednesday to CIA Director John Brennan, Reid repeated allegations that the CIA conducted three unauthorized searches of the computers on which staffers of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reviewed millions of pages of top-secret documents and began drafting the still-unreleased study.
“You are no doubt aware of the grave and unprecedented concerns with regard to constitutional separation of powers this action raises,” wrote Reid, who also labeled as “patently absurd” Brennan’s allegation that the staffers had “hacked” into classified CIA computer networks.
In a separate letter also sent Wednesday, Reid urged Attorney General Eric Holder to have the Justice Department “carefully examine” what Reid called an apparent CIA bid to intimidate the committee by seeking a criminal investigation of the staff’s alleged unauthorized penetration of agency computer networks.
Reid’s two letters represent the latest shots fired in a power struggle between the Democrat-controlled Senate and the CIA ignited by the sweeping four-year, 6,300-page study of the CIA’s use under the Bush administration of water boarding and other harsh interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists held in secret “black site” prisons overseas.
White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment on the dispute between the committee and the CIA other than to say it was “appropriate” that the Justice Department was reviewing the matters.
Meanwhile, the CIA issued a statement to McClatchy.
“CIA Director Brennan is committed to resolving all outstanding issues related to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation report and to strengthening relations between the Agency and Congress,” said Dean Boyd, a CIA spokesman. “The CIA believes in the necessity of effective, strong and bipartisan congressional oversight. We are a far better organization because of congressional oversight, and we will do whatever we can to be responsive to the elected representatives of the American people.”
In his letter to Holder, Reid said the CIA request for a criminal probe “appears to be a transparent attempt to intimidate the committee and undermine its oversight of the agency.” Reid noted that the request was made by a top CIA lawyer who was involved in the interrogation program.
“The absurdity of the allegations, when matched with the clear conflict of interest possessed by the (CIA) acting general counsel, calls into question the credibility of CIA Director Brennan’s recent claim that ‘There’s never been an effort by the CIA to thwart the (committee’s) investigation,’’’ Reid wrote to Holder.
In his letters to Brennan and Holder, Reid said that he had instructed the Senate sergeant-at-arms to initiate a “forensic examination” of the computers and a computer network that the CIA “assigned for the exclusive use” of the committee staff.
The examination would be aimed at determining how a copy of a highly classified internal CIA review of the interrogation program ended up in the staff’s network, he wrote.
He asked Brennan to “take whatever steps necessary” to ensure there is no further interaction between CIA personnel and Senate staff other than with Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance W. Gainer, a veteran police officer who commands the Senate’s security force of nearly 1,000. Reid announced Thursday that Gainer would step down in the spring after seven years and be replaced by his deputy, Drew Willison. Adam Jentleson, Reid’s communications director, said Gainer’s departure had been long planned and that there was no connection between it and the Senate investigation.
“Furthermore, I ask your cooperation in ensuring that Sergeant at Arms staff have the access, including security clearances, necessary to complete their examination in a timely and effective manner,” Reid wrote to Brennan.
The sergeant-at-arms investigation is the third formal inquiry into the dispute.
The CIA general counsel’s office asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into the alleged unauthorized removal of classified materials by the committee staff, a matter that the FBI is now examining. CIA Inspector General David Buckley, meanwhile, asked the department to launch a criminal probe into the alleged unauthorized intrusion by CIA personnel into the committee’s computers.
The battle raged for months behind the scenes until it was disclosed by McClatchy on March 4. A week later, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., took to the Senate floor to denounce what she said were unauthorized CIA searches of her staff’s computers that might have violated the law and the Constitution.
The computers were at a secret CIA facility in Northern Virginia, where the agency required the staff to review 6.2 million pages of classified operational cables, reports and other documents related to the interrogation program.
During the course of their research, the staff obtained in 2010 the internal CIA review, which comprised summaries of the contents of the documents they were provided.
The review also included analyses by CIA personnel that, according to Feinstein, corroborated the study’s major findings and showed that the agency had misled the committee in disputing some of the conclusions in an official response to the study submitted by Brennan in June 2013.
Because of what Feinstein contended were previous instances of the CIA obstructing and destroying materials related to the interrogation program, the staff printed out the Panetta review — so-called because it was ordered by former CIA Director Leon Panetta — removed it from the CIA facility and locked it up in the committee’s high-security Capital Hill offices.
Feinstein contended that the staff found the review in the database of documents approved for their use by the CIA using a commercial Google search engine provided by the agency.
In a confrontation in January with Feinstein and her Republican vice chairman, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Brennan said the CIA had searched the committee’s computers after determining that a major security breach of the agency’s computer networks had allowed the staff unauthorized access to the review. The review bore markings that Brennan claimed put it beyond the power of the committee to access.
In his letter to Brennan, Reid disputed the CIA’s allegations.
“I understand that you have alleged that Senate committee staff illicitly accessed classified CIA networks to obtain a document ... which appears to corroborate the findings and conclusions of the committee’s study and to contradict the CIA’s own official response to the study,” Reid wrote. “To my knowledge, the CIA has produced no evidence to support its claims that Senate committee staff, who have no technical training, somehow hacked into the CIA’s highly secure classified networks, an allegation that appears on its face to be patently absurd.”
The committee narrowly approved a final draft of the study in December 2012, but it hasn’t been released as it has yet to undergo a declassification review by the Obama administration.
But Feinstein and other lawmakers who have read the report said that it determined that the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods produced little intelligence of any value.
They have also asserted that the CIA misled the Bush administration, Congress and the public about the effectiveness of the program, which many experts, current and former U.S. officials and military commanders and other governments have charged employed torture.