WASHINGTON – A behind-the-scenes battle between the CIA and Congress erupted in public Tuesday as the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee accused the agency of breaking laws and breaching constitutional principles in an alleged effort to undermine the panel’s multi-year investigation of a controversial interrogation program.
Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., accused the CIA of secretly removing documents, searching committee-used computers and attempting to intimidate congressional investigators by requesting an FBI inquiry of their conduct – charges that CIA Director John Brennan disputed within hours of her appearance on the Senate floor.
Feinstein described the escalating conflict as a “defining moment” for Congress’ role in overseeing the nation’s intelligence agencies and cited “grave concerns” that the CIA had “violated the separation-of-powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution.”
Brennan fired back during a previously scheduled speech in Washington, saying that “when the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”
The dueling claims exposed bitterness and distrust that have soared to new levels as the committee nears completion of a 6,000-page report that is expected to serve as a scathing historical record of the agency’s use of waterboarding and other brutal interrogation methods on terrorism suspects held at secret CIA prisons overseas after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Displaying flashes of anger during her floor speech, Feinstein said her committee would soon deliver the report to the White House, and push for declassification of a document that lays bare “the horrible details of the CIA program that never, never, never should have existed.”
The latest dispute is in some ways a proxy for a deeper conflict over that document. The CIA and the committee are at odds over many of the report’s conclusions about the effectiveness of the interrogation program, but are battling primarily over tension that surfaced during the investigation.
Feinstein’s remarks provided the most detailed account of that investigation, describing an arrangement in which the CIA set up a secret facility in Northern Virginia with a set of computers where committee investigators were promised unfettered access to millions of operational cables, executive memos and other files on the interrogation program.
The disagreement between Feinstein and Brennan centers on whether agency employees or committee staff members – or both – abused their access to that shared network to gain an upper hand.
Feinstein implied that the CIA sabotaged the committee’s efforts from the outset, loading a massive amount of files on computers with no index, structure or ability to search. “It was a true document dump,” she said.
Over a period of years, investigators pored over more than 6.2 million classified records furnished by the CIA, using a search tool that agency technical experts agreed to install. But U.S. officials said the committee gained access to a set of documents that the agency never intended to share, files that were generated at the direction of former director Leon Panetta as part of an effort to take an inventory of the records being turned over to Feinstein’s panel.
The two sides have engaged in heated exchanges in recent days over the nature of those files and how they were obtained.
Meanwhile, a letter that Brennan distributed to the CIA workforce on Tuesday raised questions about Feinstein’s claims and her awareness of how and when the committee obtained the Panetta review files.
The letter, which Brennan sent to Feinstein on Jan. 27 and which was attached to a message he sent the workforce, recounts a meeting they had weeks earlier to discuss the matter. During that meeting, Feinstein said she didn’t know that the committee already had copies of the Panetta review. Brennan pushed her to explain why the panel had recently requested the files when they were already in its possession.
“You informed me that you were not aware that the committee staff already had access to the materials you had requested,” Brennan wrote, according to a copy obtained by the Washington Post.
Brennan urged Feinstein to work with the agency to determine how the committee had obtained the documents, a request she ultimately rejected, officials said.
The CIA began to suspect that the committee had obtained those files this year after lawmakers referred to the supposed “internal review” publicly. U.S. officials said CIA security personnel then checked the logs of the computer system it had set up for the committee and found the files had been moved to a part of the network that was off-limits to CIA.
“They did something to get those documents,” said a U.S. official briefed on the matter. A security “firewall was breached. They figured out a workaround to get it.” The official declined to elaborate.
Feinstein said the review documents were “identified using the search tool provided by the CIA,” but was careful not to say precisely how they were obtained. “We don’t know whether the documents were provided intentionally by the CIA, unintentionally by the CIA, or intentionally by a whistle-blower.”
Feinstein expressed outrage that the CIA referred the matter to the FBI. “There is no legitimate reason to allege to the Justice Department that Senate staff may have committed a crime,” Feinstein said, describing the move as “a potential effort to intimidate this staff, and I am not taking it lightly.”