In a stunning public accusation Tuesday, the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee said the CIA snooped through congressional computers and is trying to intimidate Congress into backing off a report looking into charges of torture during terrorist-linked interrogations.
The accusation by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, escalated what had been a simmering dispute into a full-blown constitutional battle.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle backed Mrs. Feinstein and said that having an executive agency — the CIA in particular — breaking into congressional computers is a major breach of trust and could result in criminal charges.
The White House, meanwhile, tried to duck questions about the matter by saying it would await an internal CIA auditor’s report.
CIA Director John O. Brennan strongly denied that his agency had broken any laws and said it didn’t hack into Senate computers. Still, he didn’t deny that agents had conducted a search, nor did he deny Mrs. Feinstein’s accusation that the CIA deleted a critical document that the agency earlier provided to the committee.
The accusations are stunning, particularly coming from Mrs. Feinstein, who has been one of the intelligence community’s biggest Democratic defenders in Congress. Her extensive speech laying out accusations on the Senate floor showed the extent of damage to the relationship between the CIA and the members of Congress who are charged with overseeing the agency’s secret work.
“The CIA did not ask the committee or its staff if the committee had access to the internal review or how we obtained it. Instead, the CIA just went and searched the committee’s computers,” Mrs. Feinstein said. “The CIA has still not asked the committee any questions about how the committee acquired the Panetta review. In place of asking any questions, the CIA’s unauthorized search of the committee’s computers was followed by an allegation, which we have now seen anonymously in the press, that the committee staff had obtained the document through unauthorized or criminal means.”
She said the CIA turned over a partial copy of the Panetta review as part of millions of pages of documents provided to the committee for its investigation into the interrogation techniques. Mrs. Feinstein said the agency searched a congressional computer network kept at a CIA facility in Northern Virginia to delete the document, violating an agreement between the two sides. Committee staffers had transported a copy to the committee’s offices on Capitol Hill, the California Democrat said.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn’t do that. That’s just beyond the scope of reason,” he said.
He said the matter has been referred to internal investigators and to the Justice Department, and said he would wait for results of those reviews to determine whether either side broke the law.
“I would just encourage members of the Senate to take their time to make sure they don’t overstate what they claim and what they probably believe to be the truth,” he said.