WASHINGTON — The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, said Thursday that he had ordered a forensic examination of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s computer equipment to answer what he called the CIA’s “absurd” claims that the committee’s staff had hacked into the agency’s network.
Reid’s order is the latest round of an escalating fight between the CIA and the Intelligence Committee, which has oversight authority over the agency.
Last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the committee, accused the CIA of monitoring computers used by committee staff members to complete their investigation of the agency’s detention and interrogation programs — an action she said may have broken the law.
She said that the agency had also improperly removed documents from the committee’s computers on two other occasions in 2010.
The CIA director, John O. Brennan, has denied that the agency spied on the committee. CIA lawyers have referred a case to the Justice Department alleging that committee aides gained unauthorized access to CIA computer systems to obtain an internal classified report on the interrogation program, which has come to be called the “Panetta Report.”
The Justice Department, which is also reviewing Feinstein’s accusations, is reluctant to investigate either referral because there are constitutional questions about separation of powers raised by the conflict.
In letters sent to Brennan and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday, Reid said he had instructed the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms to conduct a forensic analysis of the committee’s computers to resolve the question of misbehavior on the part of committee staff members.
“The C.I.A. has produced no evidence to support its claims that Senate committee staff who have no technical training somehow hacked into the C.I.A.’s highly secure classified networks, an allegation that appears on its face to be patently absurd,” Reid wrote to Brennan.
In his letter to Holder, Reid singled out a former acting general counsel of the CIA, Robert Eatinger, for referring the CIA’s claims to the Justice Department even though he was mentioned 1,600 times in the Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation.
Reid added that the referral “appears to be a transparent attempt to intimidate the committee and undermine its oversight of the agency.”
Democratic senators have claimed that the Panetta review, which is still classified, is broadly consistent with the Intelligence Committee’s voluminous report about the CIA’s now-defunct detention and interrogation program.
According to several people who have read the report, it concludes that the agency gained little valuable intelligence from its brutal questioning of Al Qaeda detainees, and that CIA officials repeatedly misled the White House, Congress, and the public about the value of the program.