March 11 (Bloomberg) -- The CIA searched a congressional computer network in a possible criminal violation and breach of the separation of powers between the branches of government, said the chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.
“I have asked for an apology,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said in a speech on the Senate floor today in Washington.
CIA Director John Brennan responded that his agency didn’t hack into the Senate computers, and he urged senators not to “overstate” what happened. He said today in remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington that the agency isn’t trying to thwart the release of a report on an investigation of the CIA’s interrogation and detention of suspected terrorists.
The computer search involved the removal in 2010 of hundreds of pages of documents from secure machines provided to the committee by the Central Intelligence Agency, Feinstein said.
“On two occasions, CIA personnel electronically removed committee access to CIA documents after providing them to the committee,” she said. “This was done without the knowledge or approval of committee members and staff and in violation of our written agreements.”
Feinstein said the CIA monitored a committee computer network set up to process 6.2 million pages of documents the agency had turned over for the Senate’s investigation of the interrogation and detention of suspected terrorists.
In 2010 some of documents deposited into the network 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 treatment of suspected terrorists, she said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid 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.”
Feinstein said that in 2010 the CIA accessed the computer network to remove documents that had been made available to committee investigators.
After the committee staff read the Panetta review documents, “access to the vast majority of them was removed by the CIA,” she said.
The “stand-alone” computer network 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, 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.”
“I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution,” Feinstein said. “It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function.”
She disputed media reports that Senate Intelligence Committee staff inappropriately gained access to CIA computers.
“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.”
The committee has no way to know whether the Panetta documents were provided intentionally or unintentionally by the CIA, she said.
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.