Senator Rebukes CIA for Spying on Congress

March 12, 2014 Updated: March 12, 2014

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein said she went public with her accusations only after trying and failing to resolve the problem “discreetly and respectfully.” She said the CIA interfered with a congressional secure network and she learned about it Jan. 15.

According to Feinstein, the agency removed hundreds of documents about post-9/11 detentions and interrogations, after Senate staff had flagged them as important. Two batches of documents either chosen for the committee’s final report or for further investigation vanished, she said. The CIA has also searched the committee’s confidential work without permission, she said.

The first issue is whether the spy agency will ever reveal whether it abused human rights or broke the law during the Bush years, under a policy of using enhanced interrogations and indefinite detentions to thwart potential terrorist attacks.

The second issue is whether it violated constitutional boundaries by interfering with legislators.

The dispute comes as the Obama administration is trying to regain public trust after classified details about widespread surveillance of Americans were disclosed by former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden last summer. The dispute does not involve the NSA spying on Americans, but it does show a fractious relationship between the U.S. spy agencies and the Congress charged with overseeing them.

Feinstein, as head of the intelligence panel, has defended the NSA against criticism, making her comments about the CIA dispute highly unusual. However, senators said the stakes were high.

“If we do not stand up for the protection of the separation of powers and our ability to do oversight, especially when conduct has happened that is in all likelihood criminal conduct on the part of a government agency, then what do we stand for?” asked Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina also reflected congressional anger.

Declare War

“Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it’s true,” Graham said. “If it is, the legislative branch should declare war on the CIA.”

Normally a conflict between the intelligence committee and the CIA would be handled outside the public eye, but Feinstein made a lengthy statement on the Senate floor in which she detailed the restrictions the agency placed on her committee’s work, and accused it of wasting time and money and more seriously, of violating the separation of powers. The CIA is part of the executive branch, and is constitutionally forbidden to interfere with the legislative branch. Feinstein said she has referred her allegations to the Department of Justice for investigation.

A Noncommittal White House

CIA director John Brennan defended his agency Tuesday. He said it did not hack into computers that Senate staffers were using to investigate Bush-era interrogation programs. The White House has stayed neutral.

The White House said Obama agrees with CIA Director John Brennan that it’s important to get to the bottom of whether the spy agency violated any laws with respect to a Senate panel’s investigation.

Spokesman Jay Carney said he can’t comment on the dispute between Feinstein and the CIA because there’s an ongoing review by an inspector general and that the matter has also been referred to the Justice Department.

When Barack Obama was elected, critics were disappointed that he did not aggressively investigate whether CIA operatives should face criminal charges for the post-911 use of harsh interrogation techniques.

As president, he officially discontinued the program in an executive order titled Ensuring Lawful Interrogations, on Jan. 22, 2009, two days into his presidency. No one has been prosecuted for waterboarding or other treatment of terrorist suspects. Feinstein’s panel is trying to learn if anyone should be.

Meanwhile, Feinstein accuses the agency of blocking Congress as it tries to learn what the agency did during the Bush administration.

Obstructing for Years

“I rise today to set the record straight and to provide a full account of the facts and history,” she said on the Senate floor. She said the agency had obstructed her committee from learning things it had a right to know since before she became chair in 2009.

“The CIA’s detention and interrogation program began operations in 2002, though it was not until September 2006 that members of the Intelligence Committee, other than the chairman and vice chairman, were briefed. In fact, we were briefed by then-CIA Director Hayden only hours before President Bush disclosed the program to the public,” she said.

Feinstein and her committee read a “chilling” staff report of the CIA’s actions, which came from cable and written descriptions of interrogations. “The interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detention sites were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us,” said Feinstein. The descriptions replaced video that the CIA destroyed against advice from President Bush’s White House counsel and the director of national intelligence.

The committee decided to do a thorough investigation, but the CIA put up many barriers, according to Feinstein, including setting up a separate computer network in a building outside Congress, which held millions of pages of unorganized documents with no index. It was that network from which the flagged documents vanished, according to her statement.

The senator said she decided to take the conflict public after seeing many inaccurate, anonymous reports in the media and after getting no cooperation from the CIA.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.