Obama knew CIA secretly monitored intelligence committee, senator claims
White House declines to comment after Mark Udall says agency spied on staffers preparing scathing report into CIA torture after 9/11
Barack Obama. Udall wants the president to help declassify the 6,300-page inquiry by the committee into CIA torture. Photograph: Charles Dharapak/AP
Spencer Ackerman in Washington
Wednesday 5 March 2014 12.06 EST
A leading US senator has said that President Obama knew of an “unprecedented action” taken by the CIA against the Senate intelligence committee, which has apparently prompted an inspector general’s inquiry at Langley.
The subtle reference in a Tuesday letter from Senator Mark Udall to Obama, seeking to enlist the president’s help in declassifying a 6,300-page inquiry by the committee into torture carried out by CIA interrogators after 9/11, threatens to plunge the White House into a battle between the agency and its Senate overseers.
McClatchy and the New York Times reported Wednesday that the CIA had secretly monitored computers used by committee staffers preparing the inquiry report, which is said to be scathing not only about the brutality and ineffectiveness of the agency’s interrogation techniques but deception by the CIA to Congress and policymakers about it. The CIA sharply disputes the committee’s findings.
Udall, a Colorado Democrat and one of the CIA’s leading pursuers on the committee, appeared to reference that surreptitious spying on Congress, which Udall said undermined democratic principles.
“As you are aware, the CIA has recently taken unprecedented action against the committee in relation to the internal CIA review and I find these actions to be incredibly troubling for the Committee’s oversight powers and for our democracy,” Udall wrote to Obama on Tuesday.
Independent observers were unaware of a precedent for the CIA spying on the congressional committees established in the 1970s to check abuses by the intelligence agencies.
“In the worst case, it would be a subversion of independent oversight, and a violation of separation of powers,” said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s potentially very serious.”
The White House declined to comment, but National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Obama supported making the major findings of the torture report public.
“For some time, the White House has made clear to the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that a summary of the findings and conclusions of the final report should be declassified, with any appropriate redactions necessary to protect national security,” Hayden said.
McClatchy reported that the CIA inspector general has made a criminal referral to the Justice Department, a threshold procedure for opening a criminal investigation.
Neither the CIA nor the Justice Department would comment for this story.
In 2012, the Justice Department closed an inquiry into prosecuting low-level CIA practitioners of torture without bringing any charges. But the prospect of the agency spying on its Senate overseers who prepared their own inquiry potentially places the agency right back into the legal morass it has labored for years to avoid.
In February, the CIA confirmed to the Guardian that it is subject to the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which makes it a crime to access government computer networks without authorization. The issue arose after Udall’s partner on the committee, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, asked CIA Director John Brennan at a January hearing, without elaboration, if the statute applied.
Overshadowed by the CIA inspector general’s inquiry is the future of the report itself.
The committee is pushing for a declassification that the Justice Department, in a letter responding to a lawsuit by journalist Jason Leopold, said is a decision that rests with the committee itself.
But the president of the United States possesses wide latitude to order the report released, as the White House says it supports. “The classification system is based on executive order, not on statute, and the president has absolute authority to declassify executive branch records at will,” said Aftergood.
“In this case, he could order declassification of the Senate intelligence committee report today.”
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and ex officio member of the intelligence committee, said the alleged monitoring was potentially “extremely serious.”
“If, as alleged in the media, CIA accessed without permission or authority a computer network dedicated for use by a Senate committee, it would be an extremely serious matter. Such activity, if it occurred as alleged, would impede Congress’ ability to carry out its constitutional oversight responsibilities and could violate federal law,” Levin said in a statement on Wednesday.