The CIA and Justice Department are fighting over a secret investigation into a controversial program by legal supporters of Islamist terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay that involved photographing CIA interrogators and showing the pictures to prisoners, an effort CIA officials say threatens the officers’ lives.
The dispute prompted a meeting Tuesday at CIA headquarters between U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald and senior CIA counterintelligence officials. It is the latest battle between the agency and the department over detainees and interrogations of terrorists.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. angered many CIA officials and Republicans in Congress by reopening an investigation last August into whether CIA interrogators acted illegally in questioning senior al Qaeda detainees.
According to U.S. officials familiar with the issue, the current dispute involves Justice Department officials who support an effort led by the American Civil Liberties Union to provide legal aid to military lawyers for the Guantanamo inmates. CIA counterintelligence officials oppose the effort and say giving terrorists photographs of interrogators has exposed CIA personnel and their families to possible terrorist attacks.
As part of the disagreement, a senior Justice Department national security official removed himself from the counterintelligence probe last week after opposing CIA security worries.
Donald Vieira, a former Democratic counsel on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who in September became chief of staff at the Justice Department’s National Security Division, recused himself from the counterintelligence investigation into the recent discovery of photographs of CIA interrogators in the possession of defense lawyers at the prison in Cuba.
The investigation has been under way for many months, but was given new urgency after the discovery last month of additional photographs of interrogators at Guantanamo showing CIA officers and contractors who have carried out interrogations of detainees, according to three officials familiar with the investigation. They spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Findings of the investigation to date produced some signs that the senior al Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo gained intelligence on CIA interrogators through their lawyers that could be used in future legal proceedings.
CIA counterintelligence officials have “serious concerns” that the information will leak out and lead to the terrorists targeting the officers and their families, if the identities are disseminated to terrorists or sympathizers still at large, said one official.
“They have put the lives of CIA officers and their families in danger,” said a senior U.S. official about the detainees’ lawyers.
The case is being pressed by the counterspies who only recently were able to alert senior agency, Justice Department and White House officials to their concerns.
Details on Mr. Vieira’s recusal could not be learned, but the Justice Department team recently added Mr. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago who led the controversial 2005 investigation into the public disclosure of the identity of CIA undercover officer Valerie Plame.
The recusal is said to be related to Mr. Vieira’s past work on the House intelligence committee on detainee policy before 2009, one official said.
Mr. Vieira could not be reached for comment, and Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler declined to comment.
A CIA spokesman also declined comment, as did Mr. Fitzgerald, through a spokesman.