The Justice Department has declined to bring criminal charges against anyone at the CIA or the Senate Intelligence Committee in a dispute over access to documents about the enhanced interrogation program the U.S. deployed against detainees after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Prosecutors notified the Senate panel Thursday of their decision, a muted end to a power struggle that had undermined relations between the intelligence community and its chief overseers on Capitol Hill.
“The department carefully reviewed the matters referred to us and did not find sufficient evidence to warrant a criminal investigation,” said Peter Carr, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s criminal division, in a prepared statement.
Attorney General Eric Holder had given little public indication he wanted to wade into a clash over the separation of powers. Earlier this year, the CIA accused Senate panel staff members of improperly accessing sensitive documents about detainee mistreatment as part of their long-running congressional investigation into abusive detention and interrogation practices by the intelligence community.
Agency lawyers went so far as to refer the matter to the Justice Department for possible criminal investigation. Then, in March, the committee chairwoman, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, appeared in the well of the Senate for a remarkable address in which she pointed a finger at the CIA for unauthorized snooping on a computer provided to her staff.
More than anything else, the notion that legislative aides who had spent years reviewing thousands of pages of “chilling” and gruesome material now faced criminal jeopardy seemed to set off Feinstein, who called the CIA criminal referral to prosecutors “a potential effort to intimidate this staff.”
CIA Director John Brennan has refrained from most public statements, but he addressed the controversy earlier this year in remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“As far as the allegations of CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s just beyond the scope of reason,” Brennan said. “I would just encourage some members of the Senate to take their time to make sure that they don’t overstate what they’ve claimed, and what they probably believe to be the truth.”
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and then-legal counsel Kathryn Ruemmler rushed to meet with Feinstein, one of their leading allies, to try to clean up the mess.
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment on Thursday’s Justice Department decision.
What Comes Next
But there’s still one big shoe to drop. The White House is reviewing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings about what Feinstein has described as torture of terrorism suspects in the years after Sept. 11, 2001. Capitol Hill staff members expect the report could be released publicly later this year.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, says the White House is in the middle of reviewing which parts of the executive summary, findings and conclusions need to be redacted to protect U.S. interests overseas.
“The president has been clear that he wants this process completed as expeditiously as possible, and he’s also been clear that it must be done consistent with our national security,” Hayden said in a prepared statement. “An important goal that the administration and the committee share is the safety and security of our people overseas.
“So, prior to the release of any information …, the administration will also need to look at any potential security implications and take a series of steps to prepare our personnel and facilities overseas. We will do that in a timely fashion.”
Feinstein has said her findings are meaningful not just as a chronicle of the recent past, but also a way forward.
“If the Senate can declassify this report, we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted,” she said.