WASHINGTON — The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee 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 agencys now-defunct detention and interrogation program.
The CIA just went and searched the committees computers, asserted 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 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 CIAs search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, Feinstein declared. It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities.
In addition, she said CIA intrusions into her staffs computers also may have breached the Fourth Amendments bar on illegal searches, a law prohibiting computer fraud and a 1981 presidential order that greatly restricts the agencys authority to spy on American citizens.
Denouncing the CIAs use of water-boarding and other harsh interrogation techniques 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 nations 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.
CIA Director John Brennan denied Feinsteins 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 wed do."
He also 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 hasnt 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.
U.S. officials have said that the CIA didnt actively monitor the computers, but instead went back and scoured three years worth of logs in determining what they claimed was the unauthorized removal of highly classified materials from a secret CIA electronic reading room by the committee staff.
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.
In her speech, Feinstein revealed that at one point in 2010, CIA officials misled the committee in claiming that the White House had ordered them to block her staffs access to top-secret documents that theyd been permission to review.
When the committee approached the White House, the White House denied giving the CIA any such order, she alleged.
Feinstein leveled her charges a week after McClatchy first reported the allegations that the CIA secretly monitored computers used in researching and compiling the committees 6,300-page study of the agencys 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 the study.
To say the least, this is puzzling, said Feinstein. How can the CIAs official response to our study stand factually in conflict with its own internal review?
Feinstein said that CIA Inspector General David Buckley had referred the CIAs computer searches to the Justice Department given the possibility of a criminal violation by CIA personnel.
Shortly after the referral was made, she said, the acting CIA general counsel filed a crime report with the Justice Department concerning the committees staffs actions, which she decried as a potential effort at intimidation.
She went on to point out that from mid-2004 until former President George W. Bush halted the interrogation program in 2009, the same CIA lawyer was the main legal counsel to the agency unit that oversaw the operation.
Feinstein apparently was referring to the agencys senior deputy general counsel, Robert Eatinger. The CIA declined to confirm the identity of the individual to whom Feinstein was referring.
The CIA lawyer is mentioned by name more than 1,600 times in our study and now this individual is sending a crimes report to the Department of Justice, she said. The acting general counsel himself provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice about the program.
Feinstein defended her staff, saying theyd broken no laws in printing out and taking the Panetta review document out of the CIA facility and placing it in a safe in their high-security office in at the Senate.
The staff members who have been working on this study . . . have devoted years of their lives to it, wading through the horrible details of the CIA program that never, never, never should have existed, she said.
The study, which cost $40 million, took four years to complete and entailed a review of 6.2 million pages of top-secret CIA operational cables, reports and other documents, concluded that the agencys use of harsh interrogation technique produced very little intelligence of any value, according to lawmakers whove read it.
The program didnt reveal the information that enabled the CIA to pinpoint Osama bin Ladens suspected hideout in Pakistan in which the al Qaida leader was killed by Navy SEALs in May 2011, theyve said.
Moreover, the study found that the agency misled Congress, the Bush administration and the public about the usefulness of the interrogation techniques, theyve said.
Under an arrangement with the CIA, the committee staff was provided with a stand-alone computer system to review CIA-approved documents to which only agency technicians would have access. They were barred from sharing any information from the network with other CIA officials without the committees permission, she said.
The blocking of the staffs access in 2010 to documents that theyd already been given constituted the first of what Feinstein said were two secret searches of their computers by the CIA.
The matter was settled when the committee received assurances from the CIA and the White House that there would be no further unauthorized access to the committees network or removal of access to CIA documents already provided to the committee, she said.
Later in 2010, the staff found a draft summary of the Panetta review using a search engine provided by the CIA to scour a database into which contractors dumped millions of top-secret documents after reviewing them numerous times to ensure that they were related to the study and werent covered by executive privilege, she said.
How the draft summary of the draft summary got into the database remains unknown, although Feinstein suggested they may have been put there by a whistleblower.
She denied news reports in some publications that quoted unidentified U.S. officials who suggested that committee staffers hacked through a firewall into a CIA network to obtain the draft Panetta review. She also rejected contentions that the committee wasnt entitled to some parts of the draft even though they were marked privileged and deliberative.
The Senates top legal adviser determined that Congress does not recognize these claims of privilege when it comes to documents provided to Congress for our oversight duties, she said. So we believe we had every right to review and keep the documents.
The Panetta review consisted of summaries of the documents provided to the committee compiled by a separate team of CIA officials, some of whom also included their own analyses of the contents of the materials.
What was unique and interesting about the internal documents was not their classification level but rather their analysis and acknowledgement of significant CIA wrongdoing, Feinstein asserted.
Former CIA Director Leon Panetta ordered the review after determining that no records were being kept of the contents of the documents, U.S. officials have said. Theyve denied that the review represented a formal examination of the program, downplayed its importance, and said that the reviewers analyses were personal observations that werent subjected to the agencys formal evaluation procedures.
The staff decided to print the draft Panetta review out and take it to Capitol Hill because the CIA had previously withheld and destroyed information about its detention and interrogation program, she said, referring to the agencys destruction over the objections of the Bush administration of videotapes of interrogation sessions.
There was a need to preserve and protect the Panetta review in the committees own secure spaces, she said. The relocation of the internal Panetta review was lawful.
On Jan. 15, she said, Brennan requested an emergency meeting with her and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the committee vice chairman, to inform them that without prior notification or approval, CIA personnel had conducted a search that was John Brennans word of the committees computers.
Feinstein was roundly praised by Democratic senators and prominent human rights and civil liberty groups for her speech. It was a marked contrast to criticism of her defense of the National Security Agencys bulk collection of Americans communications data.
I commend Chairman Feinstein for speaking so forcefully in defend of the indispensable role that Congress plays under our Constitution in overseeing the executive branch and in particular the intelligence community, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Chairman Feinstein described a troubling pattern of interference and intimidation by the CIA that raises serious questions about possible violations of the Constitution and our criminal laws.