washington -- Key lawmakers criticized CIA Director Michael V. Hayden's decision to launch an investigation of the spy agency's inspector general, saying Friday that the move threatens the independence of the official who serves by statute as the agency's watchdog.
The criticism came from Democratic and Republican members of congressional intelligence committees, who voiced concern that Hayden might be seeking to restrain an investigator who had admonished high-ranking CIA officials and was poised to issue new reports on the agency's interrogation and detention programs.
"This is a highly inappropriate step, and I am concerned that it could jeopardize the independence of the inspector general's office," Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a letter to Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell.
Wyden urged McConnell, who oversees the CIA and other spy agencies, "to instruct Director Hayden to cease his inquiry."
The CIA rejected suggestions that the investigation was meant to curb the inspector general's autonomy.
"This is a straightforward management review, nothing more," said CIA spokesman George Little.
"It's ridiculous to suggest that this is in any way an attack on the concept of a vigorous system of inspection and investigation."
The congressional statements were in response to the disclosure that Hayden had ordered an internal investigation of the office of John L. Helgerson, who has served as inspector general at the CIA since 2002. Current and former intelligence officials described the inquiry as unprecedented.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) said that laws establishing the position of inspector general were designed to keep it independent from outside influence or interference that could undermine its investigative function.
"It is this independence that Congress established and will very aggressively preserve," Reyes said, describing Hayden's probe as "troubling."
The investigation is being led by Robert Deitz, a lawyer with long-standing ties to Hayden who was brought into the agency to serve as a senior counselor to the director.
Deitz is expected to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee next week to explain the parameters of the inquiry, which was first reported Thursday by the Los Angeles Times on its website.
The top Republican on the Senate panel, Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, also questioned Hayden's decision. "I will be watching carefully to make sure that nothing is done to restrain or diminish that important office," Bond said in a written statement.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the inquiry had been driven by complaints from CIA operations officers about Helgerson's fairness and impartiality.
Helgerson has expressed opposition to CIA involvement in detaining and interrogating terrorism suspects overseas, officials said, and some have complained that he has allowed that agenda to shape his investigations of those highly classified programs.
One U.S. government official familiar with the inquiry described it as part of an effort by Hayden to protect such case officers and to solidify his support within the agency's directorate of operations, the branch that handles overseas spying missions.
"That's clearly what is going on here," the official said.
Helgerson has issued a series of harshly critical reports in recent years, including one that was declassified in August that faulted former CIA Director George J. Tenet for failures leading up to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.