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CIA lawyer at center of computer snooping clash

Wednesday - 3/12/2014, 7:38pm  ET

This video framgrab, taken Oct. 31, 2013, and provided by the American Bar Association (ABA) shows the CIA’s acting general counsel Robert Eatinger speaking during the 23rd Annual Review of the Field of National Security Law, hosted by the ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security, in Washington. The senior CIA lawyer accused by the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee of trying to intimidate the panel over its investigation into secret prisons and brutal interrogations of terrorism suspects was himself involved in the controversial programs. (AP Photo/ABA)

STEPHEN BRAUN
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The top CIA lawyer accused by the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee of trying to intimidate the panel over its investigation into secret prisons and brutal interrogations of terrorism suspects was himself involved in the controversial programs, cited more than 1,600 times in the Senate's unpublished investigative report, according to the panel's chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed that CIA acting general counsel Robert Eatinger also was one of two senior spy agency officials who informed administration lawyers earlier this year about plans to file a criminal complaint against Senate Intelligence Committee staffers. The CIA suspects the aides improperly gained access to a classified CIA report on the George W. Bush-era secret prisons and harsh interrogations overseen by the spy agency. Carney said CIA Director John Brennan also notified the White House about the decision.

Until Feinstein's extraordinary Senate speech Tuesday in which she said the CIA was possibly trying to intimidate committee staff, Eatinger was little known outside a small cadre of highly specialized national security lawyers. He has maintained a low profile in a legal career that has spanned two decades at the CIA and in the Navy. But Feinstein's remarkable accusations instantly made Eatinger famous -- or infamous -- over a simmering constitutional dispute that threatens to engulf two branches of the government.

Eatinger's criminal complaint to Justice boomeranged when Feinstein rose in the Senate chamber Tuesday to lambaste the CIA for what she described as quietly removing documents the agency had earlier provided to Senate investigators, monitoring committee staffers and undermining congressional authority. Feinstein lashed out at Eatinger personally -- though not by name -- in accusing the CIA lawyer of "a potential effort to intimidate" committee aides and of providing "inaccurate information" to the Justice Department.

Eatinger did not return telephone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment Tuesday, and the CIA did not respond to questions about the counsel. CIA Director John Brennan said the agency was "not in any way, shape or form trying to thwart this report's progression, release." But Brennan made no comments about Feinstein's characterization of the agency's top lawyer.

Feinstein's public broadside at the CIA may mark a rare turning point in what long has been her supportive relationship with the intelligence community. But her pointed criticism of Eatinger was equally unusual, training a harsh spotlight on a CIA veteran who previously had been caught up in a similar furor over the destruction of CIA videotapes that showed the agency's waterboarding of several al-Qaida prisoners.

"I view the acting counsel general's referral as a potential effort to intimidate this staff, and I am not taking it lightly," Feinstein said. Two congressional officials confirmed that Feinstein's remarks referred to Eatinger. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the classified nature of the internal investigations.

Eatinger was temporarily elevated to CIA's acting counsel general after top CIA lawyer Stephen Preston left to become general counsel for the Defense Department. President Barack Obama's new nominee for CIA general counsel, Caroline Kass, still needs Senate approval.

Eatinger was one of two CIA lawyers who reportedly told the director of the CIA's clandestine service in 2005 there were no legal requirements for the agency to hold onto 92 videotapes that showed the abusive tactics used by its interrogators against al-Qaida prisoners. Although Eatinger and the other lawyer did not specifically sanction it, the CIA official, Jose Rodriguez, later ordered the tapes destroyed.

Rodriguez's destruction of the tapes in late 2005 in an industrial-strength shredder came despite objections by the Bush administration's White House counsel and the director of national intelligence. The CIA director at the time, Michael Hayden, assured senators that Rodriguez hadn't destroyed evidence because there were still written cables describing what the videotapes showed, but Feinstein said Tuesday the cables downplayed the brutality of the program.

"The conditions of confinement and interrogations were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us," Feinstein said. She said Senate staff was justified in removing a copy of an internal CIA report from a CIA computer that had been lent to the staff and bringing it to their secure offices on Capitol Hill because the CIA previously had destroyed material relevant to its investigation in the form of the videotapes.

The unauthorized destruction of the CIA videotapes is described in detail in a new book, "Company Man," by the CIA's then-top lawyer, John Rizzo.

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