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Heinrich, Senate panel go mum on CIA dispute

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Have you been following the bare-knuckle brawl between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee? New Mexico’s own senator – Democrat Martin Heinrich – is right in the middle of the melée.

Here’s a quick recap: In recent weeks, Intel Committee members, including Heinrich, have publicly ripped the CIA over news reports that suggest the agency secretly monitored committee computers as staffers did CIA oversight work.

“The Senate Intelligence Committee oversees the CIA, not the other way around,” Heinrich said in a tart March 5 statement that got widespread national attention.

After reading his statement, I quickly called the CIA to see if they wanted to respond to New Mexico’s junior senator. They did, indeed. Within a couple of hours, the CIA’s public affairs office emailed me this zinger directly from John Brennan, the agency’s director.

“I am deeply dismayed that some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts,” Brennan said. “… I would encourage others to refrain from outbursts that do a disservice to the important relationship that needs to be maintained between intelligence officials and congressional overseers.”

At issue is a still-classified Senate Intelligence Committee report that, by most accounts, is harshly critical of the agency’s detention and interrogation practices post-Sept 11. Heinrich, along with other committee members, has made an aggressive push to compel the CIA to declassify the report.

“The public must be given a complete and accurate accounting of this dark period in our history,” Heinrich said in his March 5 statement. “Only then can the American people understand the scope and impact of the CIA’s actions and hopefully future generations will learn from these mistakes.”

Obviously, this is important, intriguing stuff. So, 10 days ago – on a Friday morning – I emailed Heinrich’s press office to request an interview with the senator, explaining that I hoped to write my Sunday column on the subject, and needed some fresh perspective on the dispute and his role in it.

Whitney Potter, Heinrich’s communications director, didn’t get the senator on the phone with me that day, so I ended up writing my column on an unrelated issue. Later that same day, Potter told me via telephone that the CIA matter was a sensitive subject but she would arrange an interview the following week. I never heard back.

So, I was surprised on Thursday to see the senator tweet about an interview he gave to National Public Radio. Not only did Heinrich give a six-minute interview, but also he made news with his comment on his 2013 vote to confirm Brennan.

“I think it was a mistake,” Heinrich said on the radio program. “And I don’t take that statement lightly.”

I immediately contacted Heinrich’s office expressing dismay that he was talking to NPR and not his hometown newspaper, especially since I had requested an interview six days earlier. Potter quickly got her boss on the phone with me. But Heinrich told me he was no longer in a position to talk publicly about the CIA-Intel Committee spat.

Apparently, the committee met Thursday afternoon – just a few hours after Heinrich’s NPR interview – and agreed not to discuss the CIA flap publicly anymore. Heinrich told me the decision to muzzle committee members was made by Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein and its ranking Republican, Saxby Chambliss.

A committee staffer, who would not be quoted on the record, told me Friday “members of the committee decided amongst themselves not to discuss details of this with media.”

Whoever made the decision, Intel Committee members have apparently agreed to go mum on the issue. It will be interesting to see if that agreement holds up – and for how long.

Heinrich, who made national news with his criticism of the CIA in connection with the report and the Intel Committee spat, told me it had become “a distraction.”

“The last few weeks to some degree, have been a little bit of a distraction from some of the issues that I think are most important on the committee,” Heinrich said. “One is the current threat situation internationally where we have some issues we’re dealing with, and the oversight situation with regard to the detention and interrogation report. That’s where I’m going to keep my focus.”

He said he’s hopeful the committee’s 6,300-page detention and interrogation report will eventually see the light of day.

“I’m actually fairly optimistic at this point that it is going to be declassified, redacted and then released,” Heinrich said. “I think it’s going to happen. I would say in the not so distant future. I would hope no more than a couple of months.”

Email: mcoleman@abqjournal.com.

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