Former colleagues describe Robert Eatinger as a dedicated CIA employee.… (American Bar Assn. )
WASHINGTON — This is not Robert Eatinger's first run through a full-blown CIA controversy. But it's his most public ordeal.
For most of his career, few outside the world of espionage knew of Eatinger, 56, who has spent 22 years moving up the ranks to become the CIA's top lawyer. But in a scathing speech Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, accused him of trying to impede a Senate investigation into a notorious CIA detention and interrogation program that Eatinger had helped manage.
The California Democrat didn't name him, but his identity is a matter of public record. Feinstein made clear she was furious that Eatinger had referred the conduct of Senate staffers to the FBI for a possible criminal investigation, given that he is mentioned 1,600 times — often unfavorably — in a sharply critical intelligence committee report that is at the heart of the dispute.
Photos: 2013: The year of surveillance
"I view the acting general counsel's referral as a potential effort to intimidate this staff, and I am not taking it lightly," Feinstein said.
Former colleagues defended Eatinger on Wednesday as a CIA true believer: a dedicated employee who works long hours to assist agency operatives, analysts and top brass, sometimes to a fault.
"He doesn't have a political bone in his body," said John Rizzo, former acting CIA general counsel. "If he made this referral, it's because he felt it was the right and necessary thing to do."
Eatinger has held a series of posts at the CIA, including director of litigation, a job in which he defended the agency from lawsuits; and lawyer for the Counterterrorism Center, where he played a role in approving the CIA's lethal drone strikes.
"He believes in the place," said former CIA lawyer Afsheen John Radsan, a law professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota. "It's an extension of his family."
Rizzo's 2013 memoir, "Company Man," recounts another major controversy that affected his career as well as Eatinger's.
In 2005, Eatinger learned that Jose Rodriguez, head of the Counterterrorism Center, had ordered the destruction of videotapes of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation sessions over the objections of senior CIA officials and the George W. Bush White House. And Rodriguez was citing Eatinger's legal advice.
Eatinger was mortified, said Rizzo, who was then his boss. Eatinger and another lawyer had told Rodriguez there was no legal impediment to destroying the tapes, but they never signed off on it, and his name was not on the cable that Rodriguez sent ordering aides to feed the tapes into an industrial shredder, Rizzo said.
Still, Eatinger's advice to Rodriguez put him among the CIA officials caught in a lengthy FBI investigation of whether the CIA had deliberately destroyed evidence or obstructed justice. In the end, no one was charged with a crime.
In 2009, a federal judge, Royce C. Lamberth, issued an opinion that accused Eatinger, Rizzo, Radsan and other CIA employees of fraud for allegedly withholding information on a CIA operative accused in a civil case of eavesdropping on a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent. Eatinger and the others denied any wrongdoing. The former DEA agent won a $3-million settlement.
The current controversy stems from disputed events in 2010. As Senate staffers examined CIA documents on a classified computer network in Virginia, they found and copied an internal study that Feinstein says shows gross CIA misconduct during the then-secret detentions and interrogations that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In January this year, concerned of a possible security breach, the CIA searched logs of the computers used by the Senate investigators and confirmed they had obtained the internal study.
Eatinger referred the case to the Justice Department for possible criminal charges. The CIA's inspector general separately asked the Justice Department to review the CIA's conduct in the case to see whether it warranted further investigation.
In a stinging critique Tuesday, Feinstein said the CIA search and Eatinger's referral may have violated the Constitution, a federal computer fraud statute and a prohibition against CIA domestic surveillance.
Despite his newfound notoriety, Eatinger may be the CIA's acting general counsel for some time. President Obama's nominee for permanent CIA general counsel, Caroline Krass, has been held up in the Senate because of the dispute between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In remarks in October before the American Bar Assn. in Washington, Eatinger said he spent much of his day advising the CIA director, John Brennan, "on the potential consequences of choosing one road over another."
Brennan and Eatinger now are experiencing the consequences of picking a fight with the committee that oversees their agency.