The powerful chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee charged the CIA on Tuesday morning with covertly removing key documents from computers used by her panel’s staff to investigate the government’s interrogation practices.
In an impassioned 40-minute speech on the Senate floor accusing the intelligence agency of possibly violating the Constitution, Dianne Feinstein lacerated the CIA for accessing in January the computer files used by committee staffers to review the CIA’s now-defunct interrogation programs. By doing so, the intelligence agency would have violated a clear agreement that it had made with Feinstein’s committee that it would refrain from monitoring its review.
“I have grave concerns that the CIA search may well have violated the separation-of-powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, including the speech and debate clause,” the California Democrat said. “It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function.”
John Brennan, the CIA’s current director, flatly denied Feinstein’s accusations, telling NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell later in the day that “the allegations of the CIA hacking into computers … [are] beyond the scope of reason.”
And Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the committee’s top Republican, said he did not agree with Feinstein’s conclusions.
“We have some disagreements as to what the findings are,” Chambliss said. “Right now we don’t know what the facts are,” he said, adding that the committee will attempt to resolve the issue internally.
Feinstein, who is frequently regarded as one of the intelligence community’s most resolute defenders, said she has also asked the CIA for an apology and recognition of wrongdoing. So far, however, she said she has received neither — and she stopped just short of saying that intelligence officials lied to her panel.
“How can its official response to our study stand factually in conflict with its own internal review?” Feinstein asked.
Feinstein’s prepared remarks, which she said were delivered to correct misinformation circulating in the press, arrive a week after she confirmed the CIA was under investigation by the Justice Department for potentially spying on her committee. The intelligence agency is barred from spying on Americans, and surreptitious tapping into computers used by members of Congress and its staff presents concerns about the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution.
Toward the end of her lengthy speech, Feinstein enumerated the laws she believes the CIA may have broken: the Fourth Amendment, which protects from unreasonable search and seizure; the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act; and Executive Order 12333, which bars domestic surveillance.
Immediately after Feinstein’s speech, Senate President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy told the chamber, “I’ve heard thousands of speeches on this floor. I cannot think of any speech by any member of either party as important as the one the senator from California just gave.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid later piled on: “There’s no one that has more courage and conviction than Dianne Feinstein.”
Congress created the House and Senate Intelligence committees in the 1970s to oversee the CIA, the National Security Agency, and other spy agencies after uncovering a string of spying abuses.