WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday said he had ordered a forensic examination of the Senate Intelligence Committee's computer equipment to answer what he called the CIA's "absurd" claims that the committee's staff had hacked into the agency's network.
The order from Mr. Reid, D-Nev., is the latest round in an escalating fight between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence panel, which has oversight authority over the agency.
Last week, Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., accused the CIA of monitoring computers used by committee staff members to complete their investigation of the agency's detention and interrogation programs -- an action she said may have broken the law. She said the agency had also improperly removed documents from the committee's computers on two other occasions in 2010.
In a Jan. 27 letter to Ms. Feinstein that became public last week, CIA Director John Brennan did not directly accuse the committee of computer hacking. He said documents "may have been improperly obtained and/or retained" on a part of the CIA's computer network that had been designated for the committee's use.
Mr. Brennan has denied that the agency spied on the committee. CIA lawyers have referred a case to the Justice Department alleging that committee aides gained unauthorized access to CIA computer systems to obtain an internal classified report on the interrogation program, which has come to be called the "Panetta Report," after former CIA Director Leon Panetta.
The Justice Department, which is also reviewing Ms. Feinstein's accusations, is reluctant to investigate either referral because of the constitutional questions about separation of powers the conflict raises.
In letters sent Wednesday to Mr. Brennan and Attorney General Eric Holder, Mr. Reid said he had instructed the Senate's sergeant-at-arms to conduct a forensic analysis of the committee's computers to resolve the question of misbehavior on the part of committee staff members.
"The CIA has produced no evidence to support its claims that Senate committee staff who have no technical training somehow hacked into the CIA's highly secure classified networks, an allegation that appears on its face to be patently absurd," Mr. Reid wrote to Mr. Brennan.
In his letter to Mr. Holder, Mr. Reid singled out the CIA's former acting general counsel, Robert Eatinger, for referring the CIA's claims to the Justice Department, even though he was mentioned 1,600 times in the Intelligence panel's report on CIA interrogation. Mr. Reid added that the referral "appears to be a transparent attempt to intimidate the committee and undermine its oversight of the agency."
Democratic senators have claimed that the Panetta review, which is still classified, is broadly consistent with the Intelligence Committee's voluminous report about the CIA's now-defunct detention and interrogation program.
According to several people who have read the committee report, it concludes that the agency gained little valuable intelligence from its brutal questioning of al-Qaida detainees, and that CIA officials repeatedly misled the White House, Congress and the public about the program's value. The CIA has said the interrogations helped the agency collect vital information on terrorist activities.
Mr. Reid wrote that he was stepping into the conflict between Congress and the CIA because he had "a responsibility to protect the independence and effectiveness of our institution."
"You are no doubt aware of the grave and unprecedented concerns with regard to constitutional separation of powers this action raises," he wrote to Mr. Brennan, adding that "to ensure its independence, I ask that you take whatever steps necessary to ensure that CIA personnel refrain from further interaction related to this issue with Senate staff other than the sergeant-at-arms."
Justice Department officials were reviewing the letters and did not yet have a comment, according to spokeswoman Emily Pierce.
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said in a statement that Mr. Brennan was committed to resolving the dispute.