Did the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) spy on Senate staffers in an effort to stymie an investigation into illegal torture tactics being used by the agency during the Bush Administration? CIA Director John Brennan said that the agency does not spy on Congress and that such an allegation is beyond the scope of reason and simply not true. Brennan made his remarks during previously scheduled event at the Council on Foreign Relations – after Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) made an extraordinary speech on the floor of the Senate that caught the attention of both Democrats and Republican colleagues.
Feinstein took to the floor of the Senate to answer and challenge "inaccurate information" that has been spreading about actions the committee’s staff took with CIA documents detailing an internal agency review ordered by former CIA Director Leon Panetta in 2009. Feinstein said that the documents in question were "willingly provided" before the CIA later revoked staffers’ access and dampened the committee’s ability to investigate the interrogation and detention program. CIA Director Leon Panetta made an arrangement with the Senate in 2009 to provide a "document dump," according to Feinstein. But in 2010 staffers noticed that access to previously accessible files had been revoked.
"In short, this was the exact sort of CIA interference in our investigation that we sought to avoid at the outset," Feinstein said, adding that she raised the issue with the White House counsel. "He recognized the severity of the situation and the grave implications of executive branch personnel interfering with an official congressional investigation. The matter was resolved with a renewed commitment from the White House counsel and the CIA that there would be no further unauthorized access to the committee’s network or removal of access to CIA documents already provided to the committee."
Feinstein also pushed back against press reports saying that Senate staffers should not have had access to the documents. Feinstein said, "I reject that claim completely," and condemned the CIA’s apparent accessing of the congressional network.
"The CIA’s unauthorized search of the committee computers was followed by an allegation which we now have seen repeated anonymously in the press, that the committee staff had somehow obtained the document through unauthorized or criminal means, perhaps to include hacking into the CIA’s computer network," Feinstein said. "As I have described, this is not true. The document was made available to the staff at the offsite facility and it was located using a CIA-provided search tool, running a query of the information provided to the committee pursuant to its investigation."
At the end of her 40-minute speech, Feinstein demanded an apology from the CIA and said she had "grave concerns" the entire incident may have violated the Constitution as well as several laws.
"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," Feinstein said. "It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function… The CIA’s search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act as well as Executive Order 120003, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance."
Feinstein has sent a letter to CIA director Brennan, asking for an apology and an admission of wrongdoing. She has yet to receive either. The Justice Department has become involved in the issue, with allegations of criminal action on the part of both the CIA and Senate staffers. She said the CIA inspector general has suggested the CIA may have violated the law, and she called out the CIA leader that accused staffers of wrongdoing.
"I have been informed that [CIA Inspector General David] Buckley has referred the matter to the Department of Justice given the possibility of a criminal violation by CIA personnel," Feinstein said. Concerning allegations against Senate staffers, she said, "there is no legitimate reason to allege to the Justice Department that Senate staff may have committed a crime. I view the acting counsel general’s referral as a potential effort to intimidate this staff and I am not taking it lightly."
She closed by calling for the declassification of the Senate’s 6000+ page report on the interrogation program by the White House and its release to the public.
CIA Director Brennan later dismissed the allegations by the Senator:
"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."
Brennan did not elaborate further, citing "an ongoing investigations into the matter."
The irony of this story is that Senator Feinstein is a strong proponent of the NSA's spying programs (she also likes CISPA) that collect the data of everyday ordinary citizens, but when an intelligence agency plays fast and loose with the rules to spy on the Congress it suddenly becomes an important issue, a scandal, and a crime that needs to be investigated…