While the Senate Intelligence Committee was preparing a 6,000-plus page report on the Central Intelligence Agency's torture program, the committee experienced an "unprecedented action" from the agency. If a reported investigation from the agency's inspector general is any indicator, the CIA might have monitored staffers' computers while the torture report was being prepared.
Colorado Sen. Mark Udall sent a letter to President Obama on Tuesday that raised his concerns about the CIA's activity, as part of a list of concerns about a presidential nomination for the position of general counsel at the agency. The full letter is at the bottom of this post, via Roll Call, but this is the section that caught people's attention.
On Wednesday morning, McClatchy provided some insight into what that "action" might have been: "CIA monitoring of computers used by Senate aides to prepare the study." According to McClatchy's Jonathan Landay, Ali Watkins, and Marisa Taylor:
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.
The New York Times reports that the CIA's inspector general, an independent overseer of its work, is investigating the alleged action. It's not known if the IG referred any part of his investigation to the Justice Department. It is also not known if that monitoring would have been illegal. In January, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden asked CIA Director John Brennan if the CIA was subject to an anti-hacking law, perhaps in reference to the alleged spying. Brennan demurred in his response.
The Udall letter explains why the CIA might have been particularly interested in seeing how the report was being developed. Much of what had been published about the CIA's activity, it states, "is simply wrong," and that includes things published since Obama has been president.
"The report," McClatchy's team writes, "is said to be a searing indictment of the program."
Civil liberties activists and experts have expressed outrage at the idea that the CIA should have interfered with or tracked its Congressional overseers. John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation tweeted: "The senate intel cmte should not be in a fight with the CIA. These are not coequal powers. They should win decisively." Journalist Julian Sanchez was similarly frustrated: "Some have criticized the Senate Intel Committee's competence in recent months, but I remind you it is subject to RIGOROUS oversight by CIA" — a pointed reference to the NSA's repeated insistence that its subject to similarly circumscribed oversight from Congress. In fact, the Times calls the dispute "a rare moment of public rancor between the intelligence agencies" and the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is helmed by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a staunch defender of government surveillance tools.
The 6,300-page report has been four years in the making and cost $40 million to create, according to the Times, "in part because the C.I.A. insisted that committee staff members be allowed to review classified cables only at a secure facility in Northern Virginia." It was apparently at that facility that the alleged surveillance took place. One lesson here: Be suspicious of the communications tools the CIA gives you, especially if you're investigating improper activity by the CIA.