CIA Pushes Back Against Accusations That it Spied on Senate

John Brennan
CIA Director John Brennan publicly denied Feinstein's accusations Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Hours after Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-California, took to the Senate floor Tuesday to accuse the CIA of spying on the committee's computers, the Central Intelligence Agency's side of the story is beginning to come out.

Feinstein accused the CIA of snooping on computers used by staff of the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to investigate the spy agency's detention and interrogation program following 9/11.  The committee finished a 6,300-page report last year and Feinstein is pushing to have it declassified and made available to the public.

CIA Director John Brennan publicly denied Feinstein's accusations a few hours later at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. He also sent a letter to CIA employees Tuesday, assuring them that the CIA wants to work with its congressional overseers, not against them. "CIA has tried to work as collaboratively as possible with the Committee on its report," Brennan assured his colleagues in the email, which was shared with Newsweek by a U.S. official. Messages to the CIA workforce were also shared on Capitol Hill.

"CIA agrees with many of the findings in the report, and we disagree with others," Brennan wrote. "But we also owe it to the women and men who faithfully did their duty in executing this program to try to make sure any historical account of it is balanced and accurate. We have worked closely with the Committee to resolve outstanding issues, and we look forward to working with the Committee should it submit any portion of its report to us for classification review."

The alleged snooping was related to documents intelligence committee staffers found during their investigation into the CIA's detention and interrogation practices, which many believe amounted to torture. Feinstein said her staffers had portions of what appeared to be a CIA review of the documents handed over to her committee. This so-called "Internal Panetta Review"  found serious wrongdoing on the part of the CIA.

When the intelligence committee shared its final report with the CIA last year, the agency disputed some of the committee's findings. Feinstein found this curious because she said the internal review had reached the same conclusions as the committee. "Some of these important parts that the CIA now disputes in our committee study are clearly acknowledged in the CIA’s own Internal Panetta Review," Feinstein said on Tuesday.

She stressed that internal documents made available to her staff were not classified beyond the clearance level of her staff, and that it was within the committee's authority to copy and maintain those internal review documents. According to Feinstein, after initially providing access to parts of the internal review, committee staff realized that access had been revoked by the CIA, though they still had the copies they made earlier in the investigation.

"We have no way to determine who made the Internal Panetta Review documents available to the committee," Feinstein said, responding to allegations which have recently surfaced in the press that committee staff had improperly obtained the documents. "Further, we don’t know whether the documents were provided intentionally by the CIA, unintentionally by the CIA, or intentionally by a whistleblower."

Though the letter from Brennan to his colleagues does not dispute the facts of Feinstein's speech, the CIA's side of the story is beginning to take shape. At issue is the committee's access to the internal review, which according to emerging news reports, the CIA believes was a security breach the agency is now trying to track.  “They found a way to get ahold of these documents,” a U.S. official told McClatchy Tuesday, denying that the CIA spied on the committee's work. “That’s some troubling stuff.”

The CIA has demanded that the committee return those documents, but the committee has refused.

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