By Jonathan S. Landay and Ali Watkins, McClatchy Washington Bureau
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.