Tensions between the CIA and its congressional overseers erupted anew this week when CIA Director John Brennan refused to tell lawmakers who authorized intrusions into computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to compile a damning report on the spy agency’s interrogation program.
The confrontation, which took place during a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, came as the sides continue to spar over the report’s public release, providing further proof of the unprecedented deterioration in relations between the CIA and Capitol Hill.
After the meeting, several senators were so incensed at Brennan that they confirmed the row and all but accused the nation’s top spy of defying Congress.
“I’m concerned there’s disrespect towards the Congress,” Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who also serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told McClatchy. “I think it’s arrogant, I think it’s unacceptable.”
“I continue to be incredibly frustrated with this director,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. “He does not respect the role of the committee in providing oversight, and he continues to stonewall us on basic information, and it’s very frustrating. And it certainly doesn’t serve the agency well.”
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said he was “renewing my call” for Brennan’s resignation.
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said that Brennan declined to answer the committee’s questions because doing so could have compromised an investigation into the computer intrusions by an accountability board headed by former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind. Moreover, the agency’s leadership has asked the CIA Inspector General’s Office to respond to the questions, Boyd said.
“Commencing a new, parallel investigation to compile answers to these questions could negatively impact the integrity of the ongoing Accountability Board process,” Boyd wrote in an email.
Hours before Tuesday’s meeting in the committee’s secure offices, the panel received a letter in which Brennan said he wouldn’t respond to written questions he’d received in January from the chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper joined Brennan for the meeting, which had been expected to focus on the threat posed by the Islamic State. But tempers flared as some lawmakers challenged Brennan on his decision not to answer Feinstein’s questions, witnesses said.
At one point, said a person familiar with the meeting, Brennan raised his voice at Feinstein.
Feinstein sent the questions after Brennan told her that agency personnel investigating a security breach had searched computers her staff used in a secret CIA facility. The questions included a demand to know who ordered the intrusions and under what legal authority they were conducted.
Brennan “shouldn’t get away with not answering questions,” said Levin. “Nobody in the executive branch should get away with not answering questions to a legitimate legislative inquiry.”
Feinstein described the questions in a scathing March speech on the Senate floor. In her address, she confirmed an earlier McClatchy report about the computer intrusions and suggested that the CIA might have violated the law and the separation of powers provisions of the Constitution.
The committee staff used the computers to compile a report on the agency’s use of torture on suspected terrorists under the George W. Bush administration. Bush ended the program, in which detainees were abducted and held in secret overseas prisons, in 2006. The CIA and former Bush administration officials deny that the interrogation techniques, which included simulated drowning known as waterboarding, constituted torture.
For its part, the CIA accused Feinstein’s staffers of removing without permission classified documents from the secret facility in which the agency required them to review millions of pages of operational cables and other highly classified materials on the program.
Both sets of charges were referred to the Justice Department for criminal investigations.
At the time, Brennan adamantly denied Feinstein’s allegations that the CIA had spied on her committee. But in July, he was compelled to apologize to her after a review by the CIA Inspector General’s Office confirmed that CIA personnel gained unauthorized access to her staff’s computers and combed through their emails.
The inspector general report also revealed that the agency’s contention that the staff had removed classified documents without permission from the top-secret facility was unfounded and based on inaccurate information.
Levin dismissed Brennan’s defense that CIA Inspector General David Buckley was the appropriate person to answer Feinstein’s questions.
“It may or may not be appropriate for the (CIA) IG to answer, but it’s not appropriate for Brennan to refuse to answer. If he doesn’t know the answers, he can say so,” said Levin.
Levin continued, “He either knows the information or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t know the answers, OK, tell us. It’d be kind of stunning if he didn’t know the answers to those questions, but if that’s what he wants to say, he should tell us.”
In June, the Justice Department cited insufficient evidence and declined to launch criminal investigations into the CIA computer intrusions or the allegation that the staff had removed top-secret documents without authorization.
But Levin said that the answers to Feinstein’s questions could yield new information that could prompt the Justice Department to reopen an inquiry into the CIA’s computer monitoring.
The committee spent $40 million and five years compiling its more than 6,000-page report on the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation Program. It submitted the 500-page executive summary to the CIA and the White House for a declassification review in April, but the sides have been locked in a contentious debate over how much to black out prior to its public release.
Jonathan S. Landay of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report