Did Obama know of CIA snooping on Senate probe?

If you missed the morning post on this topic, the short version is that the CIA’s Inspector General has called for a Justice Department probe into alleged CIA snooping on a Senate Intelligence Committee (SSCI) investigation into Bush-era interrogation and detention activities by the agency. Now a letter written by a Democratic Senator to Barack Obama this week suggests that the President knew of the snooping before it went public today (via Glenn Reynolds):

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. …

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.

Glenn says “this seems big”:

“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.” That’s because such spying is illegal. I wonder who else, inside and outside the various branches of government, was being similarly spied upon. And what was done with the information learned. (Bumped, because this seems big.)

And of course, the Watergate question applies here, too — “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Udall’s letter assumes Obama already knew of this snooping on the SSCI; the meaning of “as you are aware” is pretty clear in this regard. Udall wrote the letter with some specific knowledge of Obama’s awareness of the situation as a way to demand greater declassification of the committee’s report. Udall threatens to place a hold on an Obama appointee to CIA until that happens, in large part because of the “unprecedented action” and the presumed attempts through it to obfuscate the findings of the SSCI probe.

The question, though, is twofold. Even assuming Obama knew about it, when he learned of it matters a great deal. The IG, after all, knew enough to start its own probe quite a while ago, only deciding this week that the Department of Justice needed to open a criminal investigation. The White House may well have been apprised of that IG probe, and it’s almost certain that SSCI members would have been, too. If that’s the case, then the White House would have kept quiet until after the IG report was finished and recommendations issued, so this reference to Obama knowing about it wouldn’t mean much.  Or, Udall could be insinuating that Obama knew about this well before it became the focus of action by the IG — but it’s difficult to believe that a Democratic Senator would have committed that to writing, if that was the case. Either way, it’s impossible to tell from the context of this letter.

The answer on this is that it could be big, but this doesn’t tell us much more than we knew before. If it’s that big, though, the investigation needs to go outside of Eric Holder’s Justice Department.

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