WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein jolted her colleagues Tuesday _ and sent them scrambling to figure out what to do next _ with her charge that the CIA may have violated the Constitution by monitoring her committee’s computers.
The chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in a dramatic Senate floor speech, charged that the CIA’s searches of committee records may have violated separation of powers principles. Lawmakers look to the California Democrat for guidance on intelligence matters.
“Sen. Feinstein is a pretty cool person,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. “She normally tries to stay out of the limelight, so a speech like that is getting serious attention.”
Darn right, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., after Senate Democrats huddled privately for about an hour.
“I believe in separation of powers. I support Sen. Feinstein unequivocally, and I am disappointed that the CIA is apparently unrepentant for what I understand they did,” he told reporters.
Feinstein 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 agency’s now-defunct detention and interrogation program.
“The CIA just went and searched the committee’s computers,” Feinstein said.
Republicans on the Intelligence Committee, though, did not back up Feinstein’s allegations. Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the panel, told reporters that “we don’t know what the facts are,” and he said the committee needs to figure out internally what happened.
“We’re looking at those issues from an internal standpoint very closely, we’re going to continue with our internal review and at the appropriate time we’ll have further statements to make, ” he said.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, also indicated the matter is far from settled. “We’re having some hearings on that,” Risch said as he walked into a closed Intelligence Committee meeting.
Republicans who aren’t on the sensitive intelligence panel were more forceful. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said an independent investigation might be needed.
Reid rejected that suggestion, at least for now.
“We’re about 14 steps away from that,” Reid said. He was circumspect about what’s next.
“Right now there are a lot of things going on here. I think we should all just pause for a little bit, not very long, and find out where all this stuff leads,” he said.
“We do know, and there’s been a number of public reports about this _ at least I believe that to be the case _ that the investigation that’s been going on in the Intelligence Committee for years dealing with torture is about ready to come out,” he said.
“I haven’t read it, but I think we should get that out and then find out what’s going on.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell also urged patience.
“My understanding is there’s an investigation under way. And I’m not going to comment on an ongoing investigation,” the Kentucky senator said. “My view would be that I’m not yet prepared to comment on this investigation. We’re watching it very carefully.”
Cardin argued it was up to President Barack Obama how to proceed.
“He has to get involved,” Cardin said. “The CIA is accountable to the president of the United States. The president can get to the bottom of this.”
There was widespread agreement that the search may have violated both federal law and the Constitution.
Feinstein told the Senate that the CIA search “may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, including the speech and debate clause.” She added that it may have “undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., an Intelligence Committee member, agreed, seeing “grave implications for the constitutional separation of powers.” He told reporters that “the government ought to be held accountable to the law.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said the CIA has attempted to threaten and intimidate the Intelligence Committee from doing its oversight work.
Heinrich, who is a member of the committee, said Feinstein was setting the record straight “regarding the deeply disturbing events and indefensible judgment exhibited by the CIA.”