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Computer Searches at Center of Dispute on C.I.A. Detentions

For four years, investigators working for the Senate Intelligence Committee toiled away at a secret facility in Northern Virginia, poring over C.I.A. documents in an attempt to compile a history of the agency's detention and interrogation program. Outfitted with secure computers and encrypted locks, it was set up by the C.I.A. so that the committee staff members could review millions of highly classified documents and stitch together a report that would eventually grow to 6,000 pages.

That office is now at the center of an escalating fight between the spy agency and its congressional overseers, and an investigation by the C.I.A.'s inspector general, who according to two government officials has referred the matter to the Justice Department.

Senior lawmakers contend that C.I.A. officers conducted unauthorized searches of the computers used by committee staff members in an effort to learn how the committee gained access to the agency's own 2009 internal review of the interrogation program. A chorus of Democratic senators on Wednesday said the C.I.A. had thwarted Congress' constitutional role as overseer, suggested that federal laws may have been broken, and demanded answers from the Obama administration.

But other officials, not speaking publicly, have implied that it was the committee that acted improperly by penetrating parts of the C.I.A.'s computer network it was not authorized to access, and rejected the accusations. In a statement Wednesday evening, the C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan, said he was "deeply dismayed" that a number of lawmakers had "decided to make spurious allegations about C.I.A. actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts."

Mr. Brennan said he was "very confident that the appropriate authorities would determine where wrongdoing, if any, occurred in either the executive branch or the legislative branch" -- hinting that members of the committee staff are also under scrutiny.

Emerging as a central question in the dispute is whether the C.I.A. had any authority to search the computers at the Virginia facility. In a filing made last week as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, a C.I.A. official said that the agency had gone to some lengths to ensure that committee investigators could do their work independent of any C.I.A. monitoring.

Even though the committee's work was being done at an agency facility, the official wrote in the court filing, the agency had created a "network shared drive" that was segregated from the main C.I.A. computer network.

The agreement between the Senate committee and the C.I.A. was that "materials created by S.S.C.I. personnel on this segregated shared drive would not become 'agency records' even though this work product was being created and stored on a C.I.A. computer system," according to the court filing, which used the acronym for intelligence committee's official name, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The intelligence committee finished its 6,000-page report on interrogation and detention last December, but the report has not been declassified in part because of a continuing dispute with the C.I.A. over some of its conclusions. In June, Mr. Brennan gave the committee a 122-page response, which challenged both facts in the report as well as the investigation's overarching conclusion that the C.I.A.'s interrogation methods carried out in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks yielded little valuable intelligence.

But in December, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, a Democratic member of the committee, revealed that the C.I.A. had carried out its own internal review of the interrogation program, a study that he said had come to many of the same conclusions that the Senate's investigation had.

Several officials said the C.I.A. decided to search the committee's computers at the Virginia facility based on a suspicion that committee investigators had obtained the internal review through unauthorized access to parts of the C.I.A.'s computer network. One of the laws that may possibly have been violated is the 1986 Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prohibits government employees from gaining unauthorized access to government computers.

Last month, Mr. Brennan wrote a letter to Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, about the law after the two had engaged in an exchange about it during an intelligence committee hearing. In the letter, made public on Wednesday, Mr. Brennan said that the statute "does apply" to the C.I.A., but pointed to a provision in the law that does not prohibit any "lawfully authorized investigative, protective or intelligence activity" carried out by an American spy agency.

[Source: By Mark Mazzetti, The New York Times, Washington, 05Mar14]

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