If senators vote this week to release key sections of a voluminous report on terrorist interrogations, an already strained relationship between lawmakers and the CIA could become even more rancorous, and President Barack Obama might have to step into the fray.
The Senate Intelligence Committee hopes that by publishing a 400-page summary of its contentious review and the 20 main recommendations, it will shed light on some of the most unsavory elements of the Bush administration's "war on terror" after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Despite now serving Obama, the CIA maintains that the report underestimates the intelligence value of waterboarding and other methods employed by intelligence officials at undeclared, "black site" facilities overseas. The entire investigation runs some 6,200 pages.
The dispute boiled into the open earlier this month with competing claims of wrongdoing by Senate staffers and CIA officials. The intelligence committee's chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, accused the CIA of improperly monitoring the computer use of Senate staffers and deleting files, undermining the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. The agency said the intelligence panel illegally accessed certain documents. Each side has registered criminal complaints with the Justice Department.
This week's vote could fuel the fight, if it goes in favor of disclosure. It would start a process that forces CIA officials and Senate staffers to go line-by-line through the report and debate which elements can be made public and which must stay secret because of ongoing national security concerns. The CIA and the executive branch hold all the keys as the final determiners of what ought to remain classified. Senators primarily have the bully pulpit of embarrassing the CIA publicly and the last-resort measure of going after the agency's budget.
But senators are hoping the dispute can be diffused with the intervention of Obama, whose record includes outlawing waterboarding, unsuccessfully seeking the closure of the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and supporting other changes in how the United States pursues, detains, questions and prosecutes terrorist suspects. The president has refused thus far to weigh in on Congress' dispute with the CIA, while pledging to declassify at least the findings of the Senate report "so that the American people can understand what happened in the past, and that can help guide us as we move forward."
Obama's involvement may be in the interest of both sides. Senators fear their report will be scuttled by CIA officials directly involved in past interrogation practices, undermining the role of Congress in overseeing the nation's spy agencies. For the intelligence community, which prides itself on its discretion and foresight, even the perception of manipulating that oversight could be damaging with a public still coming to grips with National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden's revelations of massive government collection of telephone and other data.
And a further worsening of Congress' spat with the CIA hardly serves Obama's aims. It has centered on Feinstein, a Democratic supporter of the president who has backed the White House on NSA and other matters, and CIA Director John Brennan, who previously served as Obama's homeland security adviser. The entire fuss is over counterterrorism practices the president entered office determined to eliminate.
Brennan offered conciliatory words in a message to CIA employees Friday. He said agency officials would address the committee's concerns so it can complete its work report as soon as possible. He also complimented Feinstein and other congressional figures for carrying out "their oversight responsibilities with great dedication and patriotism." But he did not directly address Feinstein's tart criticism or acknowledge any agency wrongdoing. He said that as a result of the unpublished review, the agency has already taken steps to strengthen CIA performance. He did not detail those moves.
Adding heat on the CIA, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ordered an investigation by his body's top cop into the computer network that contained the confidential, internal CIA review that has sparked the rift. Congressional aides say the "Panetta review," so called because it was ordered by then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, counters CIA claims about the effectiveness of its interrogation methods and backs up assertions in the committee's review.
Brennan has yet to say publicly whether the CIA will allow Senate law enforcement personnel to search agency computers that staffers had used in northern Virginia. In his note, Brennan said only that "appropriate officials are reviewing the facts."
In letters last week to the heads of the CIA and Justice Department, Reid, another close Obama ally, said the CIA's unapproved searching of computers was "absolutely indefensible." He challenged the credibility of Brennan's claims and echoed Feinstein's conflict-of-interest concerns about CIA lawyer Robert Eatinger, who was acting general counsel when he filed the criminal referral against Senate employees. That was after Eatinger was identified 1,600 times in the committee's study of the interrogation program.
Eatinger was a controversial figure even before his most recent run-ins with congressional investigators. Between 2004 and 2009, he was chief counsel for the CIA Detention and Interrogation Unit that employed harsh questioning tactics that some consider torture, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation. He was also among several CIA lawyers involved in the decision to destroy graphic videotapes of al-Qaida suspects being waterboarded.
Congressional officials worry that Eatinger and other CIA officials who worked in the interrogation unit could be involved in the agency's declassification of the Senate report. Former intelligence officials familiar with the agency's procedures said the process would probably by overseen by lawyers from the CIA's general counsel office, as well as its Intelligence Management section, which handles declassification of long-secret historic and important documents.
In some declassification projects, documents can be farmed out to appropriate CIA units that have historical knowledge of the events, said congressional and former intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter. Concern that Eatinger and other former interrogation unit members might be involved in declassification partly explains the committee's insistence on White House oversight, congressional aides said.