Did the CIA spy on the Senate?

More than a decade after it happened, the Senate Intelligence Committee has investigated the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and the secret detention program run out of the Central Intelligence Agency. The report, which McClatchy’s sources estimate will run 6,300 pages, is not expected to be complimentary. When that work is complete, the Intelligence Committee may have a brand new topic for a probe, and the Justice Department does now. The Inspector General of the CIA has referred allegations that the CIA spied on the committee and its aides during the investigation to the Department of Justice for potential prosecution:

The CIA Inspector General’s Office has asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations of malfeasance at the spy agency in connection with a yet-to-be released Senate Intelligence Committee report into the CIA’s secret detention and interrogation program, McClatchy has learned.

The criminal referral may be related to what several knowledgeable people said was CIA monitoring of computers used by Senate aides to prepare the study. The monitoring may have violated an agreement between the committee and the agency.

The development marks an unprecedented breakdown in relations between the CIA and its congressional overseers amid an extraordinary closed-door battle over the 6,300-page report on the agency’s use of waterboarding and harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists held in secret overseas prisons. The report is said to be a searing indictment of the program. The CIA has disputed some of the reports findings. …

The committee determined earlier this year that the CIA monitored computers – in possible violation of an agreement against doing so – that the agency had provided to intelligence committee staff in a secure room at CIA headquarters that the agency insisted they use to review millions of pages of top-secret reports, cables and other documents, according to people with knowledge.

This is among the worst possible accusations that could be levied against an intelligence service in a constitutional republic. For the CIA, it would be doubly worse, since the CIA’s charter forbids it to conduct any kind of domestic intelligence; that jurisdiction belongs to the FBI, and it’s significantly limited. The legislature oversees CIA, not the other way around, and if the CIA is snooping on their oversight work, that would undermine their authority.

The timing makes it even worse. American intelligence apparently never saw the invasion of Crimea coming; Eli Lake’s sources poo-poohed the possibility while the invasion was practically underway. If these allegations turn out to be true, the Senate (and House) Intelligence Committee may well wonder whether the CIA spent too much time trying to peek into its probe rather than do the job it’s chartered to do. Add that to the NSA scandal of the last nine months, and it adds up to a very bad time for American intelligence and civilian control.

Of course, these are still allegations, and from the somewhat-ambiguous description, it could be a misunderstanding related to tracking classified material. If there wasn’t any substance to the allegations at all or just a misunderstanding, though, the IG wouldn’t be referring the matter to Justice. The role of Justice isn’t to conduct fact-finding missions, but to open criminal investigations. Ironically, the SSCI report on CIA — which focuses on material misrepresentations made to the Bush administration on interrogation and detention policies, among other things — probably wouldn’t have resulted in Justice referrals after all these years.