WASHINGTON - The Justice Department and FBI are looking into a dispute over Senate investigators' access to what the Central Intelligence Agency regarded as highly privileged and sensitive documents about its use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques, sources familiar with the inquiry said on Thursday.
The CIA's inspector general asked the Justice Department to become involved after the agency and members of the Senate Intelligence Committee got into a dispute over whether Senate investigators looked at documents they were not supposed to see, and whether agency operatives inappropriately monitored Senate investigators.
The sources, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly, said the review did not yet amount to an investigation and could be terminated without any official investigation.
The review began after members of Congress complained that CIA officers had improperly accessed the work of intelligence committee staffers. It will also look at allegations Senate investigators inappropriately got access to what the agency considered to be ultra-sensitive, and privileged documents related to the rendition programme the CIA used to grab, hold and question militants after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
After examining an estimated 6 million pages of CIA documents relating to the programme, the Democratic majority on the Senate committee drafted a 6,000 page report that is still highly classified.
But sources familiar with its content said the report was highly critical of some CIA activities, notably the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as simulated drowning which human rights advocates and numerous US politicians denounced as torture.
The dispute between the agency and Senate investigators arose after committee officials began asking the CIA questions about what the agency considered to have been confidential, internal and privileged documents to which Senate officials should not have had access, the sources familiar with the inquiry said.
After receiving Senate inquiries, the CIA looked at access logs for the database to which the Senate investigators had access and discovered that they indeed had accessed what the agency to be considered material covered by legal or other official privileges, and apparently made copies for themselves.
The agency's inspector general was then asked to look into the matter, the sources said.
After taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama eliminated much of the CIA programme he inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush. But he retained a standby authority to conduct renditions, which is a bureaucratic word for extrajudicial international transfers of imprisoned or captured militant suspects.
News reports have suggested that as part of its effort to find out what the Senate investigators were up to, the CIA may have spied on Congressional computers. The sources familiar with the inquiry said such claims were false.
In a statement issued late on Wednesday, John Brennan, the CIA's director, accused some senators of making rash statements about the dispute between the agency and the committee.
"I am deeply dismayed that some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts," Brennan said.