- The Washington Times - Monday, April 12, 2010

The Pentagon will conduct a briefing this week for two senior House Armed Services Committee members on the investigation into whether defense attorneys for al Qaeda members endangered the lives of CIA interrogators.

However, the Defense Department is holding off on a full committee briefing on the CIA-Justice Department probe into lawyers who provided photographs of CIA interrogators to terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, congressional aides said.

The ranking member — Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican — has requested a briefing for the full committee twice this year. “Anything short of an immediate response to this request can’t help but adversely affect our committee’s relationship with the department,” he said.

But a senior Pentagon official said the department informally responded that it had received only two requests: one to brief Mr. McKeon and committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, and one from Mr. McKeon to brief the full committee.

“We, DoD, don’t completely own this issue,” the senior official said. “It involves multiple agencies, including us.”

The official then said that because Mr. McKeon does not speak for the committee, “we have agreed to the only official request we have — to brief chair and ranking.”

Jennifer Kohl, a spokeswoman for Mr. Skelton, said the chairman and Pentagon officials discussed a full committee briefing but that a formal request had not been made. Mr. Skelton expects to hold the full briefing sometime in coming days, she said.

The joint investigation is focusing on the John Adams Project, a program launched by private legal groups that hired private investigators to photograph covert CIA interrogators and show the photos to five al Qaeda members at Guantanamo Bay, according to U.S. officials close to the investigation.

The project wants to identify the CIA officers and contractors for upcoming military or civilian trials.

CIA and other intelligence officials are concerned that the program has put the lives of agency officers at risk.

Mr. McKeon said he has made two requests, in letters sent in January and March to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, for committee briefings on the CIA security investigation, but the Pentagon has not written back. His January letter was sent after the Pentagon had ignored repeated requests by committee staff, he said.

Mr. McKeon said he also has asked Mr. Skelton to seek a committeewide briefing, not one limited to the top two members. In a March 19 letter to the committee chairman, Mr. McKeon said, “I value our friendship and your willingness to work with me to ensure the House Armed Services Committee carries out the critical tasks of providing for the common defense and caring for our men and women in uniform. It is in this vein that I ask you to support this briefing request.”

A day earlier, Mr. McKeon stated in a letter to Mr. Gates that the Pentagon has “neglected to inform the full committee membership of this issue,” and yet “the media continues to report on this story.”

Noting a report in The Washington Times identifying a dispute between the CIA and Justice Department investigators on the investigation, Mr. McKeon said “once again our committee is forced to rely on press articles rather than your department.”

“The more the press reports about the John Adams Project, the more concerned I am that the department’s detainee operations have been — and may continue to be — compromised,” Mr. McKeon said.

“Of greater concern is that the John Adams Project may have put military and U.S. government personnel at risk,” he said.

Other U.S. officials have said the Pentagon has taken a minor role in the security probe that is being led by the Justice Department and pushed aggressively by the CIA, with the intelligence agency expressing the most serious concerns about the safety of its officers during internal meetings.

According to intelligence sources, the investigation that began last year was triggered after the discovery of several photographs of CIA officers in the cell of al Qaeda member Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, whom U.S. officials have linked to the financing of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

As part of the investigation, a CIA counterintelligence team in mid-March traveled to the detention facility at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for a security survey. The findings bolstered the CIA’s worries that the five al Qaeda members there could learn the identities of their interrogators from contacts with attorneys and pass the information to terrorists outside the prison, intelligence sources said.

After an interagency disagreement on the investigation in early March, a senior Justice Department national security official, Donald Vieira, recused himself from the probe. Mr. Vieira is a former Democratic counsel on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Also as a result of the dispute, the Justice Department brought in veteran prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago who led an earlier probe into the disclosure of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame.

The John Adams Project is sponsored jointly by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which has provided legal help to the military lawyers currently in charge of providing defense counsel to the five, including accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Spokesmen for the program have said lawyers involved have acted in accordance with the law and rules set by military judges.

Other detainees who are the subject of the probe are Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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