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by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News, Special Contributor to TheBlackVault.com

The Central Intelligence Agency may have violated the Speech or Debate clause of the U.S. Constitution by performing an unauthorized search of Senate Intelligence Committee computers, according to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service.

The Speech or Debate clause (in Article I, Section 6, Clause 1 of the Constitution) generally immunizes members of Congress from liability for actions performed in the course of their legislative duties.

But it also provides privileged protection for congressional documents against compulsory or involuntary disclosure. CIA may have unconstitutionally violated that privilege.

As detailed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein in a March 11 floor statement, the CIA carried out a search of Committee computers without notice or consent in an attempt to determine whether or how the Committee had obtained unauthorized access to a particular record concerning the CIA’s post-9/11 prisoner interrogation program.

“The search involved not only a search of documents provided by the committee to the CIA but also a search of the stand-alone and walled-off committee network drive containing the committee’s own internal work product and communications,” Sen. Feinstein said. The search took place in a CIA-leased facility where Committee staff were working.

“According to [CIA Director] Brennan, the computer search was conducted in response to indications that some members of the committee staff might already have had access to the internal Panetta review [a CIA document which CIA had not intended to release to the Committee]. The CIA did not ask the committee or its staff if the committee had access to the internal Panetta review or how we obtained it.”

“Instead, the CIA just went and searched the committee’s computers,” Sen. Feinstein said.

Through the Speech or Debate clause, the Constitution “has imposed [limitations] on executive branch attempts to interfere with legislative activities, including Congress’s authority to conduct oversight and investigations,” the new CRS analysis explained.

The Speech or Debate clause has been interpreted variously by two appellate courts, with different implications for the current circumstance, CRS said. The CIA search of Senate Intelligence Committee computers “could arguably be viewed as violating the non-disclosure privilege recognized by the court in Rayburn,” CRS said, referring to a 2007 DC Circuit case involving an FBI search of the House office of Rep. William Jefferson.

However, under a different reading of the Speech or Debate clause from a Ninth Circuit opinion in a case called US v. Renzi, the potential CIA violation “is less clear,” the CRS memorandum cautioned.

See Who’s Overseeing Whom? The CIA, SSCI and the Speech or Debate Clause, CRS Legal Sidebar, March 13, 2014.

In any event, the possible violation by the CIA of the non-disclosure privilege provided by the Speech or Debate clause is not legally actionable at this time, CRS said.  Rather, it “would only come into play in the event of a subsequent legal proceeding.”

On Friday, CIA Director John Brennan sent an email message to CIA employees containing what was understood to be a conciliatory signal towards Congress. “It is appropriate for the Intelligence Committees in the Senate and the House to carry out their oversight responsibilities thoroughly and comprehensively, and CIA needs to do all it can to assist the Committees in that regard,” Director Brennan wrote.

“Regarding the SSCI’s RDI [rendition, detention and interrogation] report, I want to assure you that the entire CIA leadership team is committed to addressing any outstanding questions or requests from SSCI members so that the Committee can complete its work and finalize the report as soon as possible.”

“I expect the Committee will submit at least some portion of the report to the CIA for classification review, and, if that happens, CIA will carry out the review expeditiously,” he wrote in the March 21 email message (published by Politico).

Source and special thanks: Secrecy News

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