March 11 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman and the CIA director argued publicly over whether the spy agency may have broken the law to thwart a report on its detention and interrogation methods.
Taking a dispute from behind closed doors to the Senate floor, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein accused the Central Intelligence Agency of improper and possibly criminal actions by searching a special computer network set up for the committee to investigate CIA treatment of suspected terrorists during President George W. Bush’s administration.
“The CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution” and “undermined the constitutional framework” for effective congressional oversight, Feinstein said.
CIA Director John Brennan responded that his agency didn’t hack into the computers used by the Senate committee. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
Tensions have been building over several years as the intelligence committee has sought to complete a report on actions by the CIA involving “black site” detention facilities and “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning, in the years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The practices were ordered stopped after President Barack Obama took office.
Feinstein said today that during 2010 the CIA improperly removed more than 900 documents, or pages of documents, initially provided for review by the committee’s staff. They were removed without the panel’s knowledge, she said.
Brennan said during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, “We wouldn’t do that. That’s just beyond the scope of reason.”
Urging senators not to “overstate” the dispute, he said that allegations of wrongdoing made by both sides are being reviewed by authorities. The dispute has been referred to the CIA’s inspector general and the Justice Department.
It was a rare public display of tensions between an intelligence agency and the head of the oversight panel, which usually deals with highly classified matters behind closed doors.
Feinstein, who called the dispute a “defining moment” for Senate oversight, has been a leading defender of government surveillance programs in the debate that followed Edward Snowden’s disclosure of secret programs by the National Security Agency.
The computer search by the CIA involved the removal in 2010 of documents from a “stand-alone computer system” provided to the committee by the agency, Feinstein said. She disputed media reports that the CIA acted because some of the documents had been obtained improperly by Senate staff members.
Feinstein said the CIA monitored the committee’s computer network, which was set up to process 6.2 million pages of documents the agency turned over for the Senate’s investigation.
Documents deposited into the panel’s special network in 2010 included agency memos from then-CIA Director Leon Panetta’s internal review of the interrogations, she said. These papers alluded to “significant CIA wrongdoing” in the treatment of suspected terrorists, she said.
Those pages were among documents removed by the CIA “without the knowledge or approval of committee members and staff and in violation of our written agreements,” Feinstein said.
The CIA first denied the deletions, then blamed CIA information-technology contractors for doing so without authority, she said. Subsequently, she said, the CIA said “that the removal of the documents was ordered by the White House. When the committee approached the White House, the White House denied giving the CIA any such order.”
Brennan said, “the authorities will review this appropriately, and I will deal with the facts as uncovered in the appropriate manner.” He added, “I would just encourage some members of the Senate to take their time to make sure that they don’t overstate what they claim and what they probably believe to be the truth.”
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is a member of the Intelligence Committee, questioned Feinstein’s account.
“That story has two sides,” Rubio said today in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Peter Cook. “I think it’s a bit more complicated than what’s being put out there by Senator Feinstein or others.”
“There should be an impartial investigation as to what happened,” Rubio said. “You may end up finding out that both sides are to blame, that both sides committed mistakes.”
Another Republican member of the panel, Richard Burr of North Carolina, criticized Feinstein for raising the issue outside the confines of the committee.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, called Feinstein’s speech a courageous defense of “one of the most important principles that we must maintain and that is the separation of powers.”
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has criticized the CIA’s use of waterboarding, called Feinstein’s allegations “very disturbing” and urged a “thorough and complete investigation.”
McCain said Feinstein wasn’t out of line in publicly discussing the dispute.
“Of course not,” he said, because the program is now “history.”
The computer network at the center of the feud had been provided to the committee by the CIA under an agreement that only information technology personnel at the agency would access it, and that they wouldn’t share information with other CIA personnel, Feinstein said today.
After the committee staff read and copied the Panetta-era review documents, “access to the vast majority of them was removed by the CIA,” she said.
Feinstein said she had been informed that the CIA’s inspector general “has referred the matter to the Department of Justice, given the possibility of a criminal violation by CIA personnel.”
She said none of the documents were obtained improperly by the committee staff, and that they were handled correctly. The committee doesn’t know whether the Panetta documents were provided by the CIA intentionally or unintentionally, she said.
“To be clear, the committee staff did not hack into CIA computers to obtain these documents, as has been suggested in the press,” Feinstein said. “The documents were identified using the search tool provided by the CIA to search the documents provided to the committee.”
Attempt to ‘Intimidate’
She said the CIA’s allegation of wrongdoing against the committee staff, which also was sent to the Justice Department, is a potential effort to “intimidate this staff, and I am not taking this lightly.”
Attorney General Eric Holder said today that the department doesn’t comment “on referrals that we get from a variety of sources, either from the intelligence community or from the Hill, since those are the ones involved.”
“The receipt of a referral does not necessarily mean we are are going to open an investigation,” Holder said in an interview.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy commended Feinstein for addressing “a troubling pattern of interference and intimidation by the CIA that raises serious questions about possible violations of the Constitution and our criminal laws.”
“This only compounds the grave concerns I have had for years about the underlying conduct that the Senate Intelligence Committee has been investigating: the torture of detainees during the previous administration,” Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said in a statement.