- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy covering diplomacy and national security., Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
This post has been updated.
In a blistering indictment of the Central Intelligence Agency, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday said the agency may have broken the law by searching computers used by congressional staff members who were investigating the agency’s controversial interrogation program.
"I have grave concerns that the CIA search may well have violated the separation of powers principles," said Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on the Senate floor. "The CIA just went and searched the committee’s computers."
CIA Director John Brennan, who enjoys an unusually close relationship with President Obama, fired back a short time later during an appearance at at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Brennan strongly pushed back against allegations of "spying" or "hacking" into Senate staffers’ computers. "We wouldn’t do that," he told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, who interviewed Brennan before a packed audience.
But Brennan took a decidedly less confrontational tone than Feinstein. He said the CIA had supported the committee’s investigation since it began and had spent considerable time and expense making documents available to committee staff. Brennan said that when all the facts of the controversy are known they will show that allegations, including by Feinstein and other committee members, will be proved unfounded. But he gave no indication that any additional information is coming from the CIA.
"It’s not as though we’re holding it back," Brennan said of the still classified interrogation report. "It’s up to them [the committee] to release it."
The stinging remarks are the latest volley between the Senate panel and the agency over the legacy of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation practices during the George W. Bush administration. For years, the Senate panel has been researching and fine-tuning a 6,300 page report that’s said to be highly critical of the agency’s interrogation practices. In order to research the program, committee staffers had to use computers provided by the agency in a CIA facility.
The CIA believes that Senate staff working inside an agency facility in Northern Virginia improperly removed classified documents that the committee was never supposed to see because they fell outside the scope of the initial congressional inquiry and were protected by executive privilege.
But Democratic senators on the committee say that the documents vindicate their own investigation, which concludes that the CIA’s torture of detainees failed to produce any useful information about potential terror attacks. They also accuse the CIA of effectively spying on committee staffers by improperly examining the computers that they had used to review millions of pages of classified material in the CIA facility.
Feinstein, a longtime defender of the Intelligence Community, went further on Tuesday, accusing the agency of intimidating her staff in order to obstruct its investigation — something she pledged not to take "lightly." She also raised the prospect that the CIA’s alleged snooping violated the Fourth Amendment and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Both the CIA’s and Feinstein’s allegations have been referred to the Justice Department, and the FBI has reportedly opened an investigation into the CIA’s allegations that the Senate staffers illegally removed the classified material, which consist of documents created after the interrogation program ended and thus technically fall outside the scope of the committee’s inquiry. Feinstein denied that her staffers did anything illegal and said at times staffers simply wanted to print out certain documents for closer examination.
Following her remarks, Vermont Sen. Pat Leahy called it a historic speech about the importance of congressional oversight. On Twitter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said "her remarks today outlined one of the most important principles we must maintain — separation of powers."
The CIA did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but CIA Director John Brennan has called allegations that his officers snooped on committee staffers "spurious" and "wholly unsupported by the facts." Yesterday, agency spokesperson Dean Boyd also pushed back against Senate allegations in a statement to Foreign Policy. "The CIA believes strongly in the necessity of Congressional oversight and we continue to cooperate closely with all our oversight committees." He said matters related to the committee’s investigation of interrogation, detention, and rendition of suspected terrorists "has not prevented us from working productively with [the committee] on a whole range of matters — from Ukraine to counterterrorism to Syria. In fact, CIA supports more than 1,000 engagements with Congress each year." Others have called this an historic low point between the committee and the agency.
This post has been updated to relfect comments made by CIA Director John Brennan.