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Showdown between the Senate and CIA ends without charges

There will be no investigation into whether or not the CIA broke the law when it searched computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers.
The seal of the Central Intelligence Agency is seen in Langly, Va.
The seal of the Central Intelligence Agency is seen in Langly, Va.

The battle between the Central Intelligence Agency and their overseers on the Senate Intelligence Committee that began four months ago will not lead to a criminal investigation.

The Department of Justice announced Thursday that it had closed its inquiry into whether or not anyone acted improperly after an incident in which the CIA, without permission, searched computers being used by Senate committee staff to investigate Bush-era torture. Senators said the CIA was attempting to hide evidence that proved the torture program was ineffective, while the CIA countered that the staffers had somehow gotten access to information they weren't supposed to see. The incident set off a historic clash between the nation's premier intelligence agency and one of the congressional bodies created to oversee it. 

Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat known as a staunch ally of U.S. intelligence agencies, gave a dramatic speech on the Senate floor in March accusing the CIA of breaking the law and violating the Constitution by spying on committee staffers in an effort to hide evidence that the torture program was a failure. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid backed up Feinstein, while then-acting CIA General Counsel Robert Eatinger suggested that it was the committee staffers who might have broken the law -- a legally dubious accusation. Obama-appointed CIA Director John Brennan was reportedly a supporter of the Bush-era program at the time. 

The Department of Justice decided that there wasn't enough evidence to warrant a criminal investigation. "The Department carefully reviewed the matters referred to us and did not find sufficient evidence to warrant a criminal investigation," said spokesperson Peter Carr. Feinstein released a statement afterward saying she was "pleased the Justice Department has decided not to open an investigation into Intelligence Committee staff," not mentioning that the Justice Department had also declined to pursue an investigation related to the concerns she raised in March.

That decision didn't sit well with all the members of the committee. "The Justice Department's decision is troubling and draws a false equivalency between congressional staff fulfilling their constitutional obligations and an executive branch agency potentially breaking the law," Colorado Democratic Senator Mark Udall said in a statement. "While I am pleased that the Justice Department recognized the folly of the CIA's accusations against committee staff, I am deeply disappointed that Justice did not also recognize the gravity of the CIA's actions. I still want answers from the CIA about its unauthorized search of the committee's computers."

Steven Aftergood, head of the Project on Government Secrecy at the American Federation of Scientists, said the decision was "the path of least resistance" for the Department of Justice, but that the conflict might continue through other means. 

"Just because the issue will not be pursued on the legal plane does not mean that the whole thing goes away. It is bound to leave a legacy of distrust, at least in the relationship between those CIA and committee personnel who were most directly involved," said Aftergood. "And regardless of what the Justice Department does or doesn’t do, the committee is not powerless to express its dissatisfaction. It has significant budgetary and policy authority over CIA that it can use if it wants to."

The Senate Intelligence Committee voted to declassify parts of its report, said to be harshly critical of the torture program, in April. The White House has said it supports declassification. Three months later, the report is still in the administration's hands, waiting for the CIA to decide which parts of a report accusing the agency of being responsible for what Feinstein called "a stain on our history" the public should be allowed to see.