Democratic staffers of the Senate Intelligence Committee obtained classified documents at the center of a bitter struggle with the CIA some three years before the agency determined that the materials had been spirited out of a secret facility and demanded their return, according to U.S. officials.
The officials cited the timing of the discovery in contending that the CIA didn’t actively monitor computers used by the staffers to compile a report on the agency’s secret detention and interrogation program, but instead had to go back and scour security logs kept on all classified systems.
The alleged unauthorized removal of the documents, which is being investigated by the FBI, triggered the unprecedented battle over the authority of the committee, which was created in 1976 to oversee U.S. intelligence organizations in the wake of a series of domestic spying scandals.
And what also remains unknown is what secrets about the controversial interrogation program might be contained in the documents now in dispute.
The CIA’s refusal to provide the documents to the committee, several Democratic senators contend, is evidence that the agency has been trying to stymie the release of a potentially damning report.
Some people familiar with the matter have defended the committee staffers’ action as arguably within the legal and constitutional authority of the CIA’s congressional overseers, and they questioned the decision by the agency’s Office of General Counsel to seek a criminal investigation.
“A concern is the appearance that DOJ (the Department of Justice) could be used as a way to intimidate committee members into being less aggressive,” said a congressional attorney who has closely followed the controversy. “The practical effect is everyone on the committee begins reconsidering how much pressure they should bring to bear on the agency.”
The congressional attorney is not on the Intelligence Committee and requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Separately, the CIA Inspector General’s Office asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into what committee staffers viewed as the unauthorized monitoring of the computers they used inside the CIA facility in which they reviewed the highly classified materials underpinning their report.
It couldn’t be learned if such a probe is underway. The Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA and the committee declined to comment.