WASHINGTON -- A Senate Sergeant-at-Arms investigation into a dispute between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee has ended without firm conclusions after failing to examine crucial computer records that investigators said were erased by the agency, sources familiar with the inquiry told The Huffington Post.
CIA officials, however, told The Huffington Post that the computer records not only exist, but were provided to Senate investigators, leaving the dispute's final inquiry shrouded in questions.
The probe by the Senate’s chief law enforcer was the last running investigation into competing allegations of wrongdoing lobbed between the CIA and its oversight committee. The tussle involved the Senate panel’s investigation into the agency’s post-9/11 torture program, with the CIA accusing the Senate staff of mishandling classified information. The completion of the Sergeant-at-Arms review marks an apparent, albeit ambiguous, conclusion, with no more investigations currently in the works.
The CIA had accused Senate staffers of pilfering a key document, commonly called the "Panetta Review," during the construction of the panel's massive study. Staff members have maintained that they followed all clearance protocols in transferring the material out of a secure CIA facility back to the panel's secure headquarters in the Hart Senate Office Building. Reviewing and securing the document was within the committee's oversight responsibilities, Intelligence chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has said, adding that the "Panetta Review" was taken due to concerns over agency misconduct.
Feinstein also explosively alleged that the CIA had improperly accessed the computers her staff used to create the study, accusations that were confirmed by the agency's inspector general in July.
Senators who have been defending the CIA in the dispute had hoped the Sergeant-at-Arms report would find committee staff culpable in the handling of the material. But the report, without the benefit of the computer records, leaves the extraordinary feud unsettled.
Computer records may have provided evidence on how the CIA document made its way into the Intelligence Committee’s hands. Those records, Senate sources said, were erased by the CIA.
The claim is technically true. The computer audit logs that recorded activity on the CIA computers used for the committee’s report were overridden from the machines’ local drives at regular intervals throughout the five-year study, HuffPost has learned. The records, however, continued to be stored elsewhere, and were provided to the Sergeant-at-Arms office for its inquiry. The CIA said that the Senate office received the computer audit records earlier this year.
“CIA cooperated fully with the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms review and provided all the relevant information that the [Sergeant-at-Arms] requested,” said CIA spokesman Dean Boyd. “In fact, audit data was specifically provided to the [Sergeant-at-Arms] in July 2014. Furthermore, CIA continues to maintain copies of this audit data to this day. Claims alleging otherwise are patently false.”
The CIA had asked the Department of Justice to pursue criminal charges against the Senate staff for removing the document, which the Justice Department declined in July to investigate. The CIA's inspector general has since determined that the criminal referral was based on "inaccurate information." The inspector general also publicly accused CIA staff of misleading the offices' investigators during its inquiry.
The Sergeant-at-Arms office did not return multiple calls and emails requesting comment. A source familiar with the Senate inquiry has since said that the CIA submitted copies of records to the Sergeant-at-Arms, rather than the records themselves, which the investigators considered unreliable.
The Sergeant-at-Arms "can't verify any of what CIA is saying," said the source, who was briefed on the investigation.
Copies of the Senate investigation have been provided to Feinstein and to Intelligence Committee Vice-Chair Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), said another source familiar with the matter.
Feinstein’s office declined to comment. Chambliss’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The roots of the Senate investigation trace back to early this year, when Feinstein accused the agency of monitoring the computers her staff used to construct its years-long, $40 million report on the CIA’s use of torture. The agency, meanwhile, accused Feinstein’s staff of slipping a secret document, commonly called the “Panetta Review,” from a secure CIA facility. Warring criminal referrals were sent to the Justice Department, which declined in July to investigate further.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in March tasked the Sergeant-at-Arms with getting to the bottom of the feud.
“The Senate has an interest in bringing final resolution to this dispute,” Reid wrote in a March 19 letter to CIA Director John Brennan. “In coordination with the Intelligence Committee, I have instructed the Senate Sergeant-At-Arms to initiate a forensic examination of the computers and computer network assigned for exclusive [Senate Intelligence Committee] use, in order to determine how the “Panetta Review” entered into the SSCI network.”
That final resolution, though, appears not to have been reached.
Reid’s office declined to comment, and deferred to the Intelligence Committee, which also declined to comment.
CIA defenders in the Senate saw equal parts wrongdoing by both the agency and Feinstein’s staff. Several Republican members of the Intelligence Committee have expressed faith in the Sergeant-at-Arms probe, and said judgment needed to be held until that investigation ended.
“We’ll see what Sergeant-at-Arms comes up with now,” said Chambliss after the Justice Department declined in July to investigate the dispute.
But the apparent failure or inability to look at computer audit logs likely will leave questions unanswered.
The Senate inquiry had been expected to complement the CIA inspector general's investigation of allegations that the agency had improperly accessed Senate computers used to compile the torture study.
That inspector general’s report, which revealed the agency had in fact penetrated a drive designated solely for committee use, forced Brennan to apologize personally to Feinstein in July. It also prompted the creation of an independent accountability board within the agency, which is currently weighing what, if any, repercussions should fall on CIA officials the inspector general found responsible.
For many lawmakers, those inspector general findings seemed a vindication for Feinstein and her Intelligence Committee staff, finding that the CIA had done wrong and seeming to clear Senate staffers of violating law by sneaking the “Panetta Review” from under the agency’s nose.
Despite the apparent conclusion, the months since Brennan’s apology have seen tensions between the committee and the CIA continue to simmer.
“I apologized then to [the Intelligence Committee] for any improper access that was done, despite the fact that we didn’t have a memorandum of understanding,” Brennan said of the admission at an intelligence conference last month. “I think there are both sides that need to be addressed, and I’ll just leave it at that.”
Brennan also clashed with intelligence panel members in a September meeting, where McClatchy Newspapers reported he refused to answer questions on who in the agency was responsible for the apparent computer violations.
Underlying the political hardball between the CIA and its Senate oversight body lies the uncertain fate of the intelligence panel’s 6,000-plus page report on the agency’s Bush-era interrogation program, which involved apprehending suspected terrorists and sending them to secret overseas prisons.
The release of the study's 500-page executive summary has been stalled indefinitely by disputes over what information the CIA and the White House wish to black out of the report’s public version. Its highly anticipated release continues to be negotiated.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the Justice Department declined in June to investigate the matter. In declined in July.