The CIA has asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation to determine the source of a Washington Post article that said the agency had set up a covert prison network in Eastern Europe and other countries to hold important terrorism suspects, government officials said on Tuesday.
The CIA's request, known as a crimes report or criminal referral, means that the Justice Department will undertake a preliminary review to determine if circumstances justify a criminal inquiry into whether any government official unlawfully provided information to the newspaper. The possibility of this new investigation follows by less than two weeks the perjury and obstruction indictment of Lewis Libby, then Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, in a leak case involving other news reporting about a national security issue.
Republican leaders in Congress also jumped into the matter over the Post's article, asking the intelligence committees of the House and the Senate on Tuesday to investigate whether classified material had been disclosed. At the same time, the Senate rejected a Democratic call for an independent commission that would conduct an investigation into claims of abuses of detainees in American custody.
The front-page article, which was published on Wednesday last week, said the agency had set up secret detention centers in as many as eight countries in the last four years.
The existence of secret detention centers, and the identity of a few of the countries in which they were located, like Thailand and Afghanistan, had been previously disclosed. But the article, describing the prison system as a "hidden global internment network," told of previously undisclosed detention facilities at highly classified "black sites" in "several democracies in Eastern Europe."
The Post, citing a "request of senior US officials," did not identify the Eastern European countries. But the mention of Eastern Europe stirred anxiety at the intelligence agency, particularly after Human Rights Watch, a group that opposes US detention policies, issued a statement on Monday saying its research had tracked CIA aircraft in 2003 and 2004 making flights from Afghanistan to remote airfields in Poland and Romania. The group said aircraft used in the flights had been previously flown by the CIA for prisoner transport.
More broadly, former intelligence officials said the Post article had prompted concerns at the CIA over threats to the agency's ability to maintain secret relationships with other intelligence services on detainee matters.
In the wake of the disclosure, the top Republican congressional leaders -- Speaker Dennis Hastert and the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist -- sent the chairmen of the intelligence committees a request on Tuesday for a joint investigation into the origin of the article.
"If accurate," the letter said, "such an egregious disclosure could have long-term and far-reaching damaging and dangerous consequences and will imperil our efforts to protect US citizens and our homeland from terrorist attacks."
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Pat Roberts, of Kansas, said he was willing to undertake the inquiry but acknowledged that leak investigations were very difficult.
Meanwhile, a secret CIA report warned in early last year that some post Sept. 11 interrogation techniques approved by the agency might violate an international agreement against torture, The New York Times said yesterday.
The report, issued at about the time the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke, lists 10 techniques authorized in early 2002, including feigned drowning, that went beyond those used by the US military on prisoners of war.
While stopping short of labeling them as torture, the report drafted by CIA inspector-general John Helgerson said the techniques appeared to violate the international Convention Against Torture, according to current and former CIA officials who described the report for the daily.
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