The chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence charged Tuesday that the CIA may have broken the law and violated the Constitution by secretly infiltrating computers used by her staff to assemble a scathing report on the spy agency’s now-defunct detention and interrogation program.
“The CIA just went and searched the committee’s computers,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Feinstein unleashed her stunning charges in an address on the Senate floor that lifted the veil on an extraordinary power struggle over the release of the report that has been raging behind the scenes for months between the CIA and the panel, created in 1976 to oversee U.S. intelligence organizations after a series of domestic spying scandals.
“The CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution,” Feinstein said. “It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities.”
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In addition, she said, CIA intrusions into her staff’s computers may have also breached the Fourth Amendment’s bar on illegal searches, a law prohibiting computer fraud and a 1981 presidential order that greatly restricts the agency’s authority to spy on American citizens.
CIA Director John Brennan denied Feinstein’s allegations after a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations marking his first year at the helm of the spy agency.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that,” Brennan said. “That’s just beyond … the scope of reason in terms of what we’d do.”
Denouncing the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques during the George W. Bush administration as an “un-American, brutal program,” Feinstein said the resolution of the battle would determine the ability of her committee to be an effective watchdog over the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.
“The recent actions that I have just laid out make this a defining moment for the oversight [powers] of our Intelligence Committee,” Feinstein said. “How this will be resolved will show whether the Intelligence Committee will be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities.”
Many experts, including former U.S. military commanders and officials, have condemned as torture the use of the harsh techniques in the interrogations of suspected terrorists in secret CIA “black site” prisons overseas. The Bush administration and the agency contend the methods were legal, although it has emerged that the CIA used some techniques before the program underwent a Justice Department legal review.
Brennan denied that the CIA was trying to impede the release of the committee study, contending that 15 months after the panel approved the report, it still hasn’t been given to the agency to vet before a public release.
“We are not in any way, shape or form trying to thwart this report’s … release,” he said.
In a Jan. 27 letter to Feinstein, Brennan acknowledged that the CIA conducted “a limited review” of the staff computers in response to a “breach or vulnerability” in an agency computer network that allowed her staff to obtain documents that he contended they were not authorized to have.
The staff’s access to the documents “raises significant concerns about the integrity of a highly classified computer system and whether the protocols developed between the [committee] and the CIA in relation to CIA files are being followed,” Brennan wrote.
The letter was attached to an email – both of which were obtained by McClatchy – that Brennan sent on Tuesday to the CIA workforce in an apparent move to explain the agency’s side of the scandal.
“The CIA wants to put the rendition, detention and interrogation chapter of its history behind it,” he said in the email.
White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to discuss the dispute in any detail.
“What I can say is that you saw the CIA director say today that if there was any inappropriate activity by CIA, he would, of course, want to get to the bottom of it, and certainly the president would agree with that,” Carney said.
Feinstein leveled her charges a week after McClatchy first reported the allegations that the CIA secretly monitored computers used in researching and compiling the committee’s 6,300-page study of the agency’s detention and interrogation program at a secret CIA-leased facility in Northern Virginia.
In a separate report also confirmed by Feinstein, McClatchy disclosed that Democratic staffers printed out and took back to their secure space on Capitol Hill a copy of an internal CIA review. She and other Democratic senators assert the internal review proves that the CIA misled the committee in disputing key findings of its study.
“To say the least, this is puzzling,” said Feinstein. “How can the CIA’s official response to our study stand factually in conflict with its own internal review?”