WASHINGTON The CIA obtained a confidential email to Congress about alleged whistleblower retaliation related to the Senate's classified report on the agency's harsh interrogation program, triggering fears that the CIA has been intercepting the communications of officials who handle whistleblower cases.

The CIA got hold of the legally protected email and other unspecified communications between whistleblower officials and lawmakers this spring, people familiar with the matter told McClatchy. It's unclear how the agency obtained the material.

At the time, the CIA was embroiled in a furious behind-the-scenes battle with the Senate Intelligence Committee over the panel's investigation of the agency's interrogation program, including accusations that the CIA illegally monitored computers used in the five-year probe. The CIA has denied the charges.

The email controversy points to holes in the intelligence community's whistleblower protection systems and raises fresh questions about the extent to which intelligence agencies can elude congressional oversight.

The email related to allegations that the agency's inspector general, David Buckley, failed to properly investigate CIA retaliation against an agency official who cooperated in the committee's probe, said the knowledgeable people, who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Somehow, according to these people, Buckley obtained the email, which was written by Daniel Meyer, the intelligence community's top official for whistleblower cases, to the office of Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a leading whistleblower-protection advocate. The Senate Intelligence Committee also learned of the matter, said the knowledgeable people.

After obtaining the email, Buckley approached Meyer's boss, I. Charles McCullough III, the inspector general for the 17-agency U.S. intelligence community, in what may have constituted a violation of the confidentiality of the whistleblowing process, they said.

Monitoring communications between inspectors general and lawmakers would clash with efforts by Congress and President Barack Obama to strengthen protections for intelligence community whistleblowers. If government officials outside an inspector general's office accessed such communications, they could discover whistleblowers' identities and retaliate against them by targeting them as security risks known as "insider threats."

The incident involving Meyer's email occurred shortly before Grassley and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper demanding to know if all of the communications of federal employees with security clearances are being continually monitored, without protections for whistleblowers. McClatchy's sources said that the letter and the email were likely connected.

"If whistleblower communications with Inspectors General or with Congress are routinely monitored and conveyed to agency leadership, it would defeat the ability to make protected disclosures confidentially, which is especially important in an intelligence community context," the senators wrote.

The letter, which Grassley and Wyden made public on June 19, made no mention of the email controversy. Grassley's office declined to comment on the letter or the email controversy. "The letter speaks for itself," said Keith Chu, a Wyden spokesman, who declined further comment.

The senators wrote that monitoring whistleblower communications "could result in whistleblowers choosing to make unprotected disclosures in public forums, with potential negative consequences for national security." They were apparently referring to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's disclosures to the media.

Snowden has said that he decided to leak to the media thousands of top-secret documents on the NSA's sweeping collection of Americans' communications data in part because he did not trust the system designed to protect whistleblowers from retaliation.



Clapper responded to the letter from Grassley and Wyden on Friday a day after McClatchy sought comment from the CIA. Clapper's letter, obtained by McClatchy, didn't directly address the Meyer email.

Clapper's letter suggested there is a need for tighter technical controls that discriminate between whistleblower-related communications and genuine insider threats.

McCullough and other intelligence community inspectors general are "currently examining the potential for internal controls that would ensure whistleblower-related communications remain confidential, while also ensuring the necessary UAM (user activity monitoring) occurs," Clapper said in the letter.

If such disclosures occur, he said, they would be accidental, and in such cases there are safeguards in place to maintain the confidentiality of the whistleblowers.

"In the event a protected disclosure by a whistleblower somehow comes to the attention of personnel responsible for monitoring user activity, there is no intention for such disclosures to be reported to agency leadership under an insider threat program," Clapper wrote.

The email controversy finds an echo in the allegations that the CIA monitored computers that Senate Intelligence Committee staffers used to compile the 6,000-page investigative report on the agency's use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods on terrorist suspects held in secret overseas prisons.