Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein launched an attack on the Central Intelligence Agency, accusing it of searching computers used by staffers investigating CIA interrogation methods.
“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 declared on the Senate floor.
She alleged that the CIA may have violated federal law as well as an executive order that bars it from domestic spying, but the agency’s director John Brennan quickly denied the allegations.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Brennan said at a Washington event, in a rare public rebuff of an elected official normally seen as an ally of the intelligence community.
“The matter is being dealt with in an appropriate way, being looked at by the right authorities, and the facts will come out.”
Feinstein said the CIA searched a computer drive used by intelligence committee staffers preparing a major report into a controversial and now defunct agency interrogation program.
The program had used “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, commonly regarded as torture, against detainees.
“I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers… was inappropriate,” the California Democrat said. “I have received neither.”
At the White House, President Barack Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney faced a barrage of questions about the allegations but dodged them all.
He said they were subject of an investigation by an independent CIA inspector general, and had been referred to the Justice Department.
“I can’t comment on allegations that are under review,” he said, adding that the White House took Feinstein’s concerns seriously but also saying that Obama had full confidence in Brennan.
Feinstein said she learned of the search on January 15 in an “emergency meeting” requested by Brennan.
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.
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. Feinstein said that after she complained to the White House, the documents were provided again.
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.
Feinstein said a CIA internal review of the detention program was among the documents provided to her staff, but that CIA officials had demanded to know how staffers obtained the review.
The CIA has referred the matter to the Justice Department, a move Feinstein described as “a potential effort to intimidate this staff.”
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.
Several lawmakers expressed concerns about the alleged CIA misdeeds and Republican Senator Rand Paul said Obama “should be more conscious of reining in this kind of abuse.”
The dispute follows the scandal sparked when 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 reporters 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.
The American Civil Liberties Union applauded Feinstein for her “necessary and historic defense of the constitutional principle of separation of powers.