WASHINGTON – A senior US senator on Tuesday accused the Central Intelligence Agency of illegally searching computers of Senate staff members who were investigating a CIA interrogation program.
Dianne Feinstein, the powerful chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, angrily denounced the actions of the CIA, accusing it of seeking to “intimidate” lawmakers from holding the spy agency accountable.
“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 in a dramatic speech on the Senate floor.
She also said the CIA may have violated a criminal statute, as well as the executive order that bars the CIA from domestic spying.
The CIA searched the computer drive used by staffers on the intelligence committee who were preparing an elaborate report examining the agency’s controversial and now defunct interrogation program, she said.
“I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers… was inappropriate,” she said.
“I have received neither.”
Shortly after Feinstein’s speech, CIA director John Brennan denied her allegations.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Brennan said at an event in Washington. “We wouldn’t do that.”
Feinstein said she and the vice chairman of the intelligence committee learned of the search on January 15 in an “emergency meeting” requested by Brennan.
The CIA search covered documents as well as “the standalone and walled off committee network drive containing the committee’s own internal work product and communications,” she said.
Feinstein’s extraordinary speech marked a break from her usually cordial relations with the intelligence community, which she has often defended against accusations of overstepping its authority.
She said she “reluctantly” decided to make her views public after trying to “resolve this dispute in a discreet and respectful way.”
The senator’s comments came after unnamed administration officials alleged to news media that Senate staffers took sensitive documents without authority, triggering an investigation.
Feinstein rejected those accounts. She said the CIA and the committee had agreed years ago to set up a secure site in Virginia for Senate staff to review documents, as well as a computer drive separate from the agency’s network.
The staffers reviewed 6.2 million documents and at no point did they seek to retrieve files that were marked classified or legally off-limits, she said.
Twice in 2010, documents that had been accessible to the staffers were removed by the CIA. After complaining to the White House, the documents were provided again, Feinstein said.
The report on detention and interrogation was completed in December 2012, when the committee approved a 6,300-page study that has yet to be released publicly.
Analysts say the Congress-CIA rift is the worst since the 1970s, when lawmakers uncovered illegal abuses and introduced legal reforms to restrict the power of the spy services.
Republican Senator John Cornyn told AFP that Feinstein’s revelations were “troubling,” while Senator Rand Paul said President Barack Obama “should be more conscious of reining in this kind of abuse.”
The discord could emerge as the second major scandal to rock the intelligence community in months, after security contractor Edward Snowden exposed the National Security Agency program that scoops up telephone data from most Americans.
Snowden, who has been given asylum in Russia, told NBC News that “the CIA was trying to play ‘keep away’ with documents relevant to an investigation by their overseers in Congress.”
“That’s a serious constitutional concern,” he said.
But Snowden also criticized Feinstein for defending her staffers while showing she “does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies.”
Feinstein has voiced support for the NSA program, arguing it helps keep America safer.
The American Civil Liberties Union applauded Feinstein for her “necessary and historic defense of the constitutional principle of separation of powers.”
“After so many years of Congress being unable or unwilling to assert its authority over the CIA, Senator Feinstein today began to reclaim the authority of Congress as a check on the executive branch,” said ACLU’s Christopher Anders.
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