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 accusations had shades of Cold War intrigue, and many Republicans rallied to Mrs. Feinstein's defense, saying major separation-of-powers issues were at stake in the CIA's snooping.
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 dispute centers around CIA documents known as the "Panetta review," which critically assessed the agency's detention and interrogation techniques during the George W. Bush administration.
"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.
Mr. Brennan, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations just hours after Mrs. Feinstein addressed the Senate, denied that his agency hacked into Senate computers.
"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.
One of the lawmakers rallying behind Mrs. Feinstein was Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who said the charges are so serious that they call for an independent investigator who can get to the bottom of a dispute that has ensnared major figures in both branches of government.
Republicans on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said the matter should be handled internally for now.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican and committee vice chairman, indicated that he wanted more details.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, said she wants committee members to call their staffers and CIA officials to testify. She said it's too early for her to judge whether there was any wrongdoing.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, told reporters that he backed Mrs. Feinstein "unequivocally."
"And I'm disappointed that the CIA is apparently unrepentant on what I understand they did," Mr. Reid said.
He added, though, that he is not ready to support a criminal investigation until more is known.
Caught in the middle, the White House took a wait-and-see approach.
"I'm not going to comment on particulars of matters that are under review," press secretary Jay Carney said.
He added that President Obama "has great confidence" in Mr. Brennan, who was the president's top counterterrorism official before becoming CIA director.
Mrs. Feinstein said the Panetta review was turned over to her committee by the CIA and could be accessed using search techniques that the CIA gave to committee staffers. She said it's not clear whether the CIA intended to give the review to Congress and even suggested it might have been included by a whistleblower. Either way, she said, the committee obtained the review legally.
Committee staffers with proper clearance took a copy of the document from the secure facility in Northern Virginia and brought it to the committee's offices in the Senate. Mrs. Feinstein said the moves complied with all legal and procedural requirements for handling sensitive material.
The dispute stems from a yearslong committee investigation into the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques, which many have labeled torture, and that were authorized by the Bush administration for use in the war on terrorism.
The intelligence committee and the CIA reached an agreement in 2009 that said the spy agency would provide documents to congressional investigators, who would have to abide by certain rules about reviewing and storing those documents.
Mrs. Feinstein said the CIA apparently removed documents from the Senate computers twice before but that the CIA apologized for those incidents and she thought the matter was closed.
Mrs. Feinstein's committee has produced a 6,300-page report that is critical of the CIA, arguing that the Bush-era detention and interrogation techniques were far worse than what had been revealed.
The CIA has said publicly that it disagrees with some of those conclusions, but Mrs. Feinstein notes that the agency's own assessment in the Panetta review reveals that it agrees with the key findings.
"To say the least, this is puzzling," she said. "How can the CIA's official response to our study stand factually in conflict with its own internal review?"
She also said the CIA has filed an official accusation with the Justice Department charging that committee staffers broke the law by accessing and taking the Panetta review documents. Mrs. Feinstein said that appeared to be an effort to intimidate the committee.
She said the person who filed that accusation was involved in the CIA's interrogation programs and is named repeatedly in the committee's critical report.
Mr. Brennan, though, said the CIA is not trying to thwart the investigation's release.
⦁ David Sherfinski contributed to this report.
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