Five questions in CIA-Senate fight

Lauren Schneiderman

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) raised the stakes in the blistering fight between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee this week when he ordered an investigation into the CIA’s claims that Senate staffers illicitly accessed CIA files.

Reid’s request for the Senate Sergeant-at-arms to examine the committee’s computers is the latest twist in the dispute where the Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has accused the CIA of flouting the Constitution by searching committee computers — and the CIA claims Senate staffers may have broken the law.

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Much of the fighting is conducted behind closed doors over classified material, and there are many unanswered questions. The five biggest unresolved issues:

What impact will Reid’s investigation have?

Reid made clear in his letter to CIA Director John Brennan Thursday that he doesn’t believe the CIA’s claims about Senate staffers, calling the charges “patently absurd.”

Reid has tasked the sergeant-at-arms with conducting a forensic examination of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s computers to determine how they got access to the CIA’s internal review of the Bush-era interrogation programs at the center of the dispute.

The CIA has claimed the committee illicitly accessed the document and took it from the CIA's facility in Northern Virginia to the committee's secure offices on Capitol Hill, which is why the agency conducted a search of the Senate computers. But Feinstein has maintained that the review was part of the millions of documents to which the spy agency gave the committee access ton the secure network so it could conduct its investigation of the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques.

Should the sergeant-at-arms exonerate the committee, it could shift the fight from a he-said, she-said dispute to one where the finger is pointed squarely at the CIA — if the spy agency accepts the findings as legitimate.

What will the Justice Department do?

The Justice Department has been asked to investigate claims of wrongdoing from both sides, but it’s unclear whether it plans to do so.

The CIA’s former acting general counsel sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department alleging that Senate staffers may have broken the law by removing the documents from the CIA’s facility in Northern Virginia, while the CIA Inspector General referred the alleged CIA searches of Senate computers.

Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that the department was reviewing the referrals, but had not decided whether to investigate them.

“We get referrals all the time,” Holder said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The fact that we get a referral does not necessarily mean we make a decision that we're going to investigate on the basis of that referral.”

He added: “At this point, I'd say that's all we're doing is just reviewing the referrals.”

Like the sergeant-at-arms probe, a Justice Department investigation could bolster the claims from one side or the other over who is really at fault.

Will this change congressional oversight? 

Reid’s involvement in the dispute and the searing statement Feinstein delivered from the floor accusing the CIA of violating the separation of powers could spark changes to the way the Senate oversees the intelligence community.

Feinstein’s statement was all the more remarkable because she has often been a fierce advocate of government surveillance in the wake of the revelations about the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance.

Critics have already accused the Intelligence Committees of failing to conduct proper oversight of the intelligence community before Edward Snowden leaked documents about the NSA’s programs.

Feinstein hasn’t yet suggested she is mulling any changes to the way the committee interacts with the CIA and the intelligence community, although relations are obviously tense in the near-term.

But the events surrounding the CIA’s alleged search of Senate computers could amplify the calls for reform. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been a vocal defender of the NSA’s surveillance, for instance, said it should be “World War III” between the Senate and CIA if the spying allegations were true.

Will the White House get involved?

The fight between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee is creating political headaches for the White House, as it pits Senate Democrats against Obama’s CIA director.

So far the White House has tried its best to stay out of the dispute, as press secretary Jay Carney has not commented on the specifics of the allegations because they’ve been referred to the Justice Department.

After Feinstein’s speech, Carney said that President Obama has “great confidence” in Brennan, while also saying that the White House was taking Feinstein’s allegations seriously.

“We take everything she says very seriously, and we take this seriously,” Carney said. “But I’m not going to comment on matters that are under investigation or review by the appropriate authorities.”

As the various investigations progress, however, the White House could face more questions from the press — and Democratic senators — about the CIA’s activities as well as Brennan’s role.

Will the dispute spur the release of the Senate’s report?

The escalating fight over the internal CIA review is really a larger fight about the Senate’s 6,300-page classified “torture report” that’s critical of the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques during the George W. Bush administration.

Democratic senators on the Intelligence Committee want the report to be de-classified, and they are still working with the CIA to finalize it. Most Republicans on the panel voted against the report’s findings however.

Brennan has contended that the CIA is not standing in the way, but has also said that the Senate panel gets some key things wrong.

“We also owe it to the women and men who faithfully did their duty in executing this program to try to make sure that any historical record of it is a balanced and accurate one,” Brennan said after Feinstein’s floor speech.

The White House has said it wants to de-classify the report once it is completed, but it’s unclear if the allegations against the CIA will expedite that process.

The president wants the findings declassified appropriately, as quickly as possible, and for those findings to be made public,” Carney said earlier this month.