Did the CIA spy on a Senate committee and violate the Constitution?
Those were just two accusations lobbed at the Central Intelligence Agency when a simmering battle between the CIA and the Senate Committee tasked with overseeing the foreign spying agency exploded into public view.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, chair of the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, took to the Senate floor to deliver a damning account of how the CIA tried to meddle in an investigation of its torture program after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks.
"This a defining moment for the oversight of our Intelligence Community," Feinstein said. "How Congress responds and how this is resolved will show whether the Intelligence Committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee."
She detailed her committee's years-long investigation into the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program and the ways the CIA hindered and interfered with that effort. Her accusations against the CIA are now being investigated by the Justice Department to see whether the agency’s actions were illegal.
In May 2009, Feinstein's committee launched an investigation into the CIA's detention and interrogation program after discovering that its methods were far harsher than they had been led to believe. Rather than provide the committee with all relevant requested documents the CIA asked that committee staff review documents in an off-site center. The agency promised to provide the committee with a “stand-alone computer system” with a “network drive” “segregated from CIA networks.”
The CIA then produced millions of pages of records -- that Feinstein called a "true document dump" -- that her staff labored to make sense of. Among the more than six million pages, intelligence committee staffers discovered portions of an internal CIA investigation into the very documents the committee was poring over. The documents, part of what came to be called the “Internal Panetta Review", were striking, Feinstein said, because they acknowledged significant wrongdoing by the agency.
When the committee completed its 6,300-page draft report on what they had discovered and submitted it to the CIA for comment, Feinstein said, they were surprised to see that the CIA disagreed with portions of the report even though they were in keeping with the findings of their own internal review.
Feinstein and her committee were therefore alarmed when they discovered the CIA had removed the internal review documents from the computers at the secure, off-site workspace. (Feinstein reported that this was not the first time the CIA had deleted documents it had already provided). The CIA then refused to provide the committee with the full Internal Panetta Review.
Then, on January 15 2014, according to Feinstein, “CIA Director Brennan requested an emergency meeting to inform me and Vice Chairman [Georgia Republican Senator Saxby] Chambliss that without prior notification or approval, CIA personnel had conducted a 'search'—that was John Brennan’s word—of the committee computers at the offsite facility." The search included "the 'stand alone' and 'walled-off' committee network drive containing the committee’s own internal work product and communications."
Feinstein said Brennan's excuse for the "search" was that her staffers had accessed the internal review. Feinstein said the staff had read the portions of the review they came across among the millions of pages of documents made accessible to them. Feinstein repeatedly stressed that committee staffers broke no laws nor read any material that was classified beyond their clearance level.
Feinstein said she has asked repeatedly for clarification about the CIA's actions over the past several months, but has received no answers from the CIA.
The committee’s allegations against the CIA are serious. "I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, including the ‘Speech and Debate’ clause," she said.
"Besides the constitutional implications, the CIA’s search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance."
Feinstein also said the CIA appeared to be trying to intimidate her staff, noting that the acting general counsel of the CIA had filed a crimes report with the Department of Justice relating to the committee staff’s actions and that allegations that the committee staff had accessed the documents via criminal means had been "repeated anonymously in the press."
CIA Director Brennan responded to the allegations while attending an event at the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, DC. ”As far as the allegation of CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth,” Brennan said. “That’s just beyond the scope of reason.”
Feinstein's aggressive speech is a change of pace. She has spent the last 10 months largely defending the intelligence community, in particular the National Security Agency's surveillance programs in the wake of the whistle-blower Edward Snowden's revelations about the agency's work. Her support of the NSA has put her at odds with many of her Democratic colleagues.
But those colleagues today praised her. Senator Mark Udall, D-Colorado, a leader in the push to end the NSA's bulk data collection programs, quickly came to Feinstein's defense, commending her for "setting the record straight." Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also praised Feinstein.
Thinking back over his 40 years in the Senate, Leahy said, "I cannot think of any speech by any member of either party as important as the one the senator from California just gave.”
Feinstein said she would press for the release to the public of her committee's report as soon as possible.
"We’re not going to stop," she said. “I intend to move to have the findings, conclusions and the executive summary of the report sent to the president for declassification and release to the American people. If the Senate can declassify this report, we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted."