Feinstein's CIA Allegations Spark Senate Protests

Feinstein's CIA Allegations Spark Senate Protests
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In an unprecedented speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein charged the Central Intelligence Agency with probing computers used by her panel and removing documents from them, resulting in what she called a breach of constitutional rights and possibly the law.

The nearly 40-minute floor speech -- which detailed years' worth of discussions between the committee and the agency regarding a Senate review of the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation program -- prompted some bipartisan support of Feinstein from her colleagues and protests about the CIA’s responses to congressional oversight.

Some senators said an independent probe may be necessary in light of what they said is a potentially serious constitutional clash between the branches. Others focused their criticism on the CIA and a desire to see long-sought information be made public. However, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, Saxby Chambliss, questioned some of the facts Feinstein presented.

CIA Director John Brennan denied any wrongdoing. “As far as the allegations of CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn’t do that. That’s just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we do,” Brennan told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell during a Q&A session at the Council on Foreign Relations. Claims of spying will be proved wrong, he insisted.

Brennan served in the CIA under the George W. Bush, and later advised President Obama's transition to the White House. Obama named him national counterterrorism director, and later CIA director, succeeding Leon Panetta. He helped the Obama administration maintain and refine Bush's U.S. drone program. He was a candidate to head the agency in 2008, but withdrew his name amid controversy surrounding his connection to the Bush administration's “enhanced interrogation” technique of waterboarding. He has since been critical of the program. 

Feinstein, who has been a leading advocate in the Senate for the intelligence community and a defender of the administration, described the alleged hacking issue as a “defining moment” for oversight of the intelligence community.

“How this will be resolved will show whether the Intelligence Committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation's intelligence activities or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee,” the California Democrat said. “I believe it is critical that the committee and the Senate reaffirm our oversight role and our independence under the Constitution of the United States.”

Feinstein's speech came after reports revealed that the CIA was probing intelligence committee computers to determine how staffers had access to an internal agency review -- ordered by Panetta -- of the interrogation program.

Feinstein said her committee staff did not access the files improperly, but that the CIA, in compliance with an investigation into the interrogation program, made them available. As part of the investigation and at the CIA’s request, the agency allocated the files to a confidential facility in Northern Virginia, where they were to be accessed only by the committee staffers involved in the study. Feinstein said some of the documents relevant to the investigation were removed after agency officials went into the computers.

“I’m not taking it lightly,” she said. “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.”

The CIA’s inspector general and the Department of Justice are conducting their own reviews of the allegations.

White House Spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment on the allegations, noting the DOJ review. "What I can say is that you saw the CIA director say today that if there was any inappropriate activity by the CIA or CIA staff, he would, of course, want to get to the bottom of it, and certainly the president would agree with that," Carney said. 

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would refrain from commenting until that investigation was complete, but noted that lawmakers are paying close attention.

Sen. John McCain, who has been critical of Brennan in the past, suggested the possibility of an independent investigation in light of the charges brought by Feinstein. Sen. Marco Rubio also called for an "impartial" investigation. "I think it’s a bit more complicated than what’s being put out there by Sen. Feinstein or others," he told Bloomberg Television.

Majority Leader Harry Reid “unequivocally” backed Feinstein. “I’m disappointed that the CIA is apparently unrepentant on what I understand they did,” he said. Asked about McCain’s suggestion that an independent investigator may be necessary, Reid said the Senate is “14 steps” away from that point.

“Right now there are a lot of things going on here. I think we should pause for a little bit -- not very long -- to find out where this stuff leads,” Reid said.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, a top critic of the administration’s spying program, called the CIA action an “unprecedented invasion.” He also wants details of the Bush era's CIA interrogation program. In a later interview with CNN, Wyden asserted that the CIA was "fearful" of the reports on the CIA's coercive interrogation becoming public.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was perhaps the most colorful in his response, comparing the alleged CIA activity on Capitol Hill to the practices of the Nixon administration. He called for the legislative branch to “declare war on the CIA” if the allegations are proven true.

White House Correspondent Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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