A team of CIA counterintelligence officials recently visited the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and concluded that CIA interrogators face the risk of exposure to al Qaeda through inmates' contacts with defense attorneys, according to U.S. officials.
The agency's "tiger team" of security specialists was dispatched as part of an ongoing investigation conducted jointly with the Justice Department into a program backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The program, called the John Adams Project, has photographed covert CIA interrogators and shown the pictures to some of the five senior al Qaeda terrorists held there in an effort to identify them further.
Details of the review could not be learned. However, the CIA team came away from the review, conducted the week of March 14, "very concerned" that agency personnel have been put in danger by military rules allowing interaction between the five inmates and defense attorneys, according to an intelligence source close to the review.
The team also expressed concerns about the inmates' access to laptop computers in the past. Some of the inmates who are representing themselves in legal proceedings were granted laptop computers without Internet access. However, the officials fear that future unfavorable court rulings could provide the inmates with the capability of communicating outside the island prison.
The joint investigation, which recently added U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald to the Justice Department team, was stepped up earlier this month after a disagreement between Justice Department and CIA officials over whether CIA officers' lives were put in danger at the prison.
The probe was launched last year but was given renewed attention after CIA counterintelligence officials expressed alarm at the recent discovery of photographs of CIA officers, without their names on the photos, in a cell at the prison.
Mr. Fitzgerald, who investigated the press disclosure of clandestine CIA officer Valerie Plame beginning in 2003, has been meeting with CIA officials for the past several weeks as part of the probe.
The prosecutor was called into the case after agency officials voiced worries that Justice Department investigators did not share their level of concern over the danger that al Qaeda terrorists at Guantanamo, including Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, could secretly send information on the identities of CIA officers to al Qaeda terrorists outside the prison through the attorneys.
A senior Justice Department National Security Division official, Donald Vieira, recused himself from the probe earlier this month as a result of the interagency dispute. Mr. Vieira was a Democratic counsel on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, before taking a post at the Justice Department.
Spokesmen for the CIA and Justice Department had no comment. The new chief defense counsel for Guantanamo, Marine Corps Col. Jeff Colwell, also declined to comment on the recent CIA security review conducted at Guantanamo.
Spokesmen for the ACLU and the John Adams Project have denied that any lawyers working to represent Guantanamo detainees have compromised the security of CIA personnel, asserting that they have operated within rules set by a military judge.
Military lawyers and some civilian lawyers seeking to represent the detainees have held meetings with the detainees over the past several months.
Regarding the interagency dispute, some CIA officials are said to be concerned that Justice Department investigators may have been advocates on behalf of the Guantanamo Bay detainees prior to joining the Obama administration.
The worries were heightened after the recent disclosure that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had signed Supreme Court briefs supporting a court review of the case of convicted terrorist Jose Padilla. Mr. Holder apologized last week for failing to disclose his role in the briefs during Senate confirmation hearings last year to be attorney general.
Mr. Holder announced in November that he would shift military trials of five al Qaeda terrorists at Guantanamo to a federal court in New York. However, under protests from critics, he reversed the decision and is expected to announce soon either another civilian trial location or military trials at the Cuban prison.
Newsweek magazine reported March 29 that CIA concerns were heightened after 20 color photographs of CIA officials were found in the cell of Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, a detainee who U.S. officials think is one of the financiers of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Officials familiar with the photos said they included snapshots of CIA officers in public areas.
According to U.S. officials, the photographs were obtained by the John Adams Project through private investigators who were able to track down the CIA officials.
The Washington Post reported in August that private investigators were able to identify CIA officers by tracking CIA-chartered flights of captured terrorists. The investigators apparently were able to identify hotels in Europe where CIA officers and contractors had stayed and gained access to hotel phone records that allowed the investigators to trace their locations.
The Post report stated that private investigators had compiled a list of up to 45 names that researchers used to eventually photograph the CIA personnel or to obtain other photos from public sources.
Under the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, it is a crime to knowingly identify publicly a CIA officer working under cover.
The law was passed after the defection to Cuba of CIA officer Philip Agee, who disclosed the names of numerous CIA officers and operations. One officer, the CIA station chief in Greece, Richard Welch, was assassinated after his name was revealed.