March 12, 2014 6:59 pm

CIA row reopens ‘war on terror’ wounds

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Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination to be the Director of the CIA, on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 7 2013©Reuters

John Brennan testifying at his nomination hearing last year. Some senators question his ability to lead the agency following the dispute

A fortnight before he took office in 2009, Barack Obama indicated that he did not plan to prosecute officials at the Central Intelligence Agency for their role in the Bush administration’s alleged torture programmes.

The soon-to-be-president spoke of his belief “that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards” and added that he did not want the CIA to “suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders”.

With the global economy teetering on the edge, it made political sense at the time to avoid a bruising partisan battle over the dark recesses of the ‘war on terror’.

But five years later, Mr Obama has found himself right back in the middle of the same political knife-fight as a result of an extraordinary public dispute between Senate Democrats and the CIA.

In a speech on Tuesday, Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate intelligence committee and a California Democrat, accused the CIA of a blatant attempt to “intimidate” the Senate from publishing details about Bush-era interrogations conducted by the CIA.

Suggesting that the agency might have violated the constitution by monitoring the computers of staff on her committee, she warned that the episode was “a defining moment for the oversight” of US intelligence agencies.

Ms Feinstein said that if a Senate report into the CIA was made public, “we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal programme of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted”.

The allegations have raised questions about the tenure at the agency of its director John Brennan, who took over last year having been one of Mr Obama’s closest aides at the White House during his first term. Following the explosive revelations about the National Security Agency last year, the dispute with the CIA creates another constitutional stand-off about the way the intelligence services operate and are overseen by Congress.

Most of all, it puts pressure on the White House to ensure that the Senate report on interrogation is made public, despite the determined resistance of the same CIA that Mr Obama did not want to alienate when he took office.

“I’ve lost confidence in Director Brennan’s ability to lead the agency,” Mark Udall, a Democratic senator for Colorado, said. The CIA was “trying to hide the truth from the American people about this programme and undermine the Senate intelligence committee’s oversight role”.

“We would not do that. That’s just beyond the scope of reason.”

- CIA director John Brennan, on suggestions that the CIA had spied on Senate staff

The argument goes back to 2007 when it was revealed that the CIA destroyed videos of interrogations that used what it called “enhanced techniques”. The Senate intelligence committee launched an investigation into CIA interrogation, poring through 6.2m documents. It completed its own 6,300-page report in December 2012, although the CIA disputes some of its conclusions, which have yet to be published.

In her speech, Ms Feinstein detailed occasions when the CIA obstructed the committee’s investigation. Senate staff analysed documents provided by the agency on computers set up by the agency at a site near its headquarters. On two occasions in 2010, she said, the CIA removed documents from those computers.

The crux of the dispute is over a CIA document – often referred to as the “Panetta review” – which was an internal analysis of the paperwork on interrogations and which Ms Feinstein says was handed over to committee staff.

This CIA document, according to senators, backs up sections of the committee’s report that the agency is disputing. “It corroborates critical information in the committee’s report which the CIA’s official response either objects to, minimises or ignores,” Ms Feinstein said.

She said Mr Brennan informed her in January that the CIA had conducted a “search” of the committee’s computers when it discovered that Senate staffers had the Panetta review. At the same time, CIA lawyers have filed a crime report with the justice department over the committee staff’s actions.

Ms Feinstein said the CIA suggestion that Senate staff committed a crime was “a potential effort to intimidate” the committee. “I am not taking it lightly,” she said. She added that the CIA lawyer who made the complaint, acting general counsel Robert Eatinger, used to be the lawyer for the unit that conducted the interrogations and “himself provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice about the programme”.

Speaking after Ms Feinstein’s speech, Mr Brennan denied that the CIA had spied on the Senate staff or hacked into their computers. “We would not do that. That’s just beyond the scope of reason,” he said. Mr Eatinger did not respond to requests for comment.

Amid pressure for the report’s conclusions to be made public, a former senate intelligence committee staff member said the CIA’s tactic might be to try and stall until the midterm elections in November. If Republicans won control of the Senate, he said, they might not want to publish a report so critical of the Bush administration.

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