The Justice Department is investigating whether a former top U.S. intelligence official, John Rizzo, improperly disclosed classified information about the CIA's drone campaign, one of the spy agency's most secretive and politically sensitive programs.
People familiar with the matter say that the CIA's general counsel's office opened the probe in March, shortly after Newsweek published an article in which Rizzo -- who had retired in 2009 after serving as the CIA's acting general counsel -- outlined an array of specific details about how CIA officials choose terrorists for drone strikes and which American officials sign off on actually carrying them out.
The existence of the investigation hasn't previously been reported.
The House and Senate Intelligence Committees each received a formal "congressional notification" about the probe last spring, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter. Those sources said the notification signifies that the CIA general counsel concluded a crime may have been committed and had forwarded the evidence it collected to the Justice Department.
The probe is ongoing, and it's not clear when it will reach a conclusion about whether to recommend that Rizzo be disciplined for his participation in the Newsweek piece.
A spokesman for the Justice Department's National Security Division, Dean Boyd, declined to comment.
Rizzo, now a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution who is working on his memoirs, didn't respond to a detailed list of questions that had been e-mailed to a Hoover spokeswoman. The CIA declined to comment on the record, as did spokespersons for many of the lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence panels. Privately, though, aides said word of the investigation had been well-received on Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers had been stunned by how much detail Rizzo disclosed about the CIA's extensive Predator drone program -- a covert effort the lawmakers themselves are barred from discussing.
If prosecutors conclude that Rizzo disclosed classified information, they could decide to take the case to trial. Should they win a conviction, Rizzo -- once one of the most powerful lawyers in the government -- could face jail time.
In his defense, Rizzo might well point to the remarks of numerous senior officials who have acknowledged the program in public.
In August, the new secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, told U.S. troops in Italy that "[o]bviously I have a helluva lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA." He paused. "Although the Predators aren't that bad."
Investigations into current or former senior CIA officials like Rizzo are exceptionally rare, and people familiar with the investigation said they expected this one to end with some sort of formal reprimand, and possibly a financial penalty such as a decrease in his government pension, rather than with his imprisonment. Until the Justice Department decides what it wishes to do, however, the CIA cannot take any action.
The existence of the probe itself reflects the unease within Congress and the intelligence community over how much Rizzo revealed about the drone program's operations.
"There were definitely members of the [House and Senate Intelligence] Committees that were concerned about the article. The fact that you had the former acting general counsel speaking in such detail about such a classified program was to many people wholly inappropriate," said a former intelligence community official with direct knowledge of the investigation. "He clearly overstepped a line."
The Newsweek article attracted enormous attention in the intelligence community and on Capitol Hill because of the high level of secrecy associated with the drone program. The unmanned aerial vehicles have become the weapon of choice in the Obama administration's shadow war against militants around the world. Since taking office, President Obama has drastically expanded both the number of strikes -- there were at least 117 last year, roughly four times as many as had been conducted during the high point of such strikes in the Bush presidency -- and the number of countries in which they take place. The Bush administration used drones almost exclusively inside Pakistan. Under Obama, drone strikes have also been carried out in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.
All told, U.S. officials estimate that drone strikes have killed close to 2,000 militants, primarily inside Pakistan, where the operations are enormously unpopular. Pakistani officials claim that hundreds of civilians have also died in the drone strikes -- a charge denied by the U.S. -- and publicly condemn them as a gross violation of Pakistani sovereignty.
Privately, Pakistan has long given Washington a tacit green light to carry out such attacks. The White House operates at least 14 drone orbits over Pakistan, which allows CIA personnel to monitor and potentially strike targets across large swaths of the country's lawless tribal regions. American officials have long feared that public discussion of the program within the U.S. would cause the delicate understanding with the Pakistanis to unravel, which is why so many American officials were surprised -- and angered -- by how extensively Rizzo detailed the program to Newsweek.
In the February article, "Inside the Killing Machine," Rizzo said the president himself doesn't sign off on killing specific militants. Instead, Rizzo said lawyers at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center compiled dossiers arguing that individual terrorists posed a severe threat to the national security of the U.S.
Rizzo told the newsmagazine that dossiers which "were ready for prime time" ended with the phrase: "Therefore we request approval for targeting for lethal operation." As the agency's general counsel, Rizzo said, he would sign the document and add the word "concurred." Once that legalistic process came to an end, CIA personnel operating Predator drones thousands of miles away had the permission they needed to fire missiles at suspected terrorists.
"It's basically a hit list," Rizzo told the newsmagazine, referring to the roughly 30 terrorists who were being actively targeted at any given moment.
The CIA doesn't disclose how many "crime reports" it sends to the Justice Department, but intelligence officials have said that there are dozens sent per year. Rarely, however, does the government prosecute officials for disclosing classified information. That has led the CIA to seek out alternatives to deterring employees from becoming whistleblowers in the press. The department successfully sued a former case officer, writing under the name of Ishmael Jones, for publishing a memoir the agency's pre-publication review department declined to clear. Jones's penalty has yet to be determined by a judge.
The CIA does not force former employees to pre-clear their broadcast, print, or web interviews. Anything written, however, must be sent to the agency for review.