WASHINGTON — The CIA is investigating whether its officers improperly monitored members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which oversees the intelligence agency, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.
The allegations come at a time when the Obama administration is trying to regain public trust after classified details about widespread surveillance of Americans were disclosed by a former National Security Agency systems analyst. The most recent allegations do not involve the NSA spying on Americans. But they do raise questions about the fundamental oversight of U.S. spy agencies by Congress and whether there were efforts to thwart it.
The allegations were first reported by McClatchy Newspapers and The New York Times.
At issue is whether the CIA violated an agreement made with the Senate Intelligence Committee about monitoring the committee’s use of CIA computers, according to McClatchy’s account. The CIA provided the computers to congressional staffers in a secure room at is headquarters so that the committee could review millions of pages of top secret documents in the course of its investigation into the CIA’s use of torture during the Bush administration, it said.
CIA Director John Brennan was strongly critical of the Senate claims.
“I am deeply dismayed that some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts,” he said in a statement issued Wednesday night. “I am very confident that the appropriate authorities reviewing this matter will determine where wrongdoing, if any, occurred in either the executive branch or legislative branch.
“Until then, I would encourage others to refrain from outbursts that do a disservice to the important relationship that needs to be maintained between intelligence officials and congressional overseers,” he said.
The Justice Department would neither confirm nor deny that the CIA inspector general referred the allegations to the Justice Department for investigation.
The topic of the CIA’s compliance with a law used to prosecute computer break-ins was recently raised without any context during a January Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
“Does the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act apply to the CIA? Seems to me that’s a yes or no question,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked CIA Director John Brennan.
Brennan did not have an immediate response. But in a Feb. 3 letter to Wyden, Brennan said the agency is indeed bound by that law. Brennan also said that the law does not prohibit hacking in the course of a lawful investigation. It would be extraordinary, however, for the CIA to assert that it was itself conducting a lawful investigation of the Senate Intelligence Committee, since the Justice Department traditionally handles investigations of members of Congress.
Wyden is known for his informed questioning of senior members of the intelligence committee during public hearings. His questions in March of last year about whether the NSA collects data on millions of Americans offered hints that were later confirmed through disclosures made by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was concerned that the CIA may have inappropriately accessed computers used by Senate investigators.
“These allegations have serious constitutional implications that go to the heart of the separation of powers,” Leahy said Wednesday.
When President Barack Obama was asked about the allegations he responded with a smile and said, “I’m going to try to make sure I don’t spill anything on my tie.”
Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee completed the 6,000-page interrogation report last year and are revising it with CIA comments, before asking the White House to declassify its 300-plus-page executive summary, and its conclusions.
When the report was first approved by Democrats on the committee in December 2012, Feinstein said her staffers reviewed 6 million pages of records from the CIA and other sources, and came to the conclusion that the detention and interrogation program yielded little or no significant intelligence.