(Recasts throughout, adds Brennan letter to Feinstein)
By Patricia Zengerle, Doina Chiacu and Mark Hosenball
March 11 A bitter dispute between the CIA and
the U.S. Senate committee that oversees it burst into the open
on Tuesday when the committee chairwoman accused the agency of
spying on Congress and possibly breaking the law.
Veteran Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said the CIA had
searched computers used by committee staffers examining CIA
documents when researching the agency's counter-terrorism
operations and its use of harsh interrogation methods such as
simulated drowning or "waterboarding."
Speaking on the Senate floor, Feinstein condemned how the
CIA had handled the committee's investigation into the agency's
detention and interrogation program started under President
George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Human rights
advocates condemn the interrogation practices as torture.
"I have grave concerns that the CIA's search (of committee
computers) may well have violated the separation of powers
principles embodied in the Constitution," said Feinstein, who is
normally a strong ally of U.S. intelligence agencies.
She disclosed that the Justice Department had been asked by
two different CIA offices to investigate whether committee
officials or the agency itself might have violated the law.
Her accusations of CIA-led computer searches were denied by
CIA Director John Brennan. They brought into the open a
simmering row between the committee and the agency that had been
brewing for months and disrupted the committee's work.
The committee investigation, which resulted in 6,000 pages
of findings which remain highly classified, was meant to
comprehensively document what the agency did and assess the
effectiveness of its methods.
Sources familiar with the findings say they condemn the
CIA's aggressive interrogations and question whether they
produced significant intelligence information. The CIA has given
the committee a classified rebuttal to the report.
Feinstein said that in January, the CIA's Brennan requested
an emergency meeting with her and the committee's top
Republican, Senator Saxby Chambliss.
She said he informed them that agency personnel, without
notifying the committee or seeking its approval, had conducted a
"search" of computers that committee investigators were using to
review documents related to the CIA program.
She charged that the search may have violated the Fourth
Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Computer Fraud and Abuse
Act and an executive order that prohibits the CIA from
conducting domestic searches or surveillance.
Brennan denied any charge of computer hacking. "Nothing
could be further from the truth. We wouldn't do that," he said
in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
He said the agency was not trying to thwart the release of
the panel's report. "We are not trying at all to prevent its
release," he said.
Feinstein has been pushing to make the report's findings
public but infighting with the CIA had meant the formal process
to declassify the document had not even begun. Feinstein said
she hoped declassification could begin before the end of March.
A key dispute is over how the committee acquired what
Feinstein and others describe as the CIA's own internal review
of its interrogation tactics and secret prisons, and its use of
"rendition," a practice in which prisoners are transferred
between countries without formal judicial process.
Feinstein and committee sources say they had found the
review in the computer system the CIA set up for their use and
at some point their staff printed out a copy and took it to
their offices on Capitol Hill.
In a letter Brennan wrote to Feinstein in January, which was
obtained by Reuters, he acknowledged the data had been deposited
in the part of the CIA computer network to which Senate
investigators had access but said he did not know how this
Feinstein said the review mirrored key concerns outlined in
her staff's report and differed sharply from the official CIA
response to the committee's investigation.
Partly as a result of the committee accessing the internal
review, security sources said, the CIA's acting general counsel
sent what is called a "crimes report" to the Justice Department
complaining about the actions of committee staff.
Feinstein condemned this action on Tuesday as an attempt to
intimidate committee staff. She bristled at suggestions her
staff had gotten information improperly and said the CIA itself
provided her committee with more than 6.2 million documents.
"The committee clearly did not hack into CIA computers to
obtain these documents, as has been suggested in the press," the
California Democrat said.
Brennan said he had also asked the CIA's in-house inspector
general to investigate. That led to another "crimes report"
being filed by that office with the Justice Department related
to committee complaints that the agency had violated the law by
searching the computer system its investigators had used.
Brennan, who took the helm of the CIA a year ago, said the
agency was eager to relegate the rendition, detention and
interrogation program to history.
The dispute heightened concerns about the effectiveness of
congressional oversight of U.S. spy agencies. Concern had
already been raised by revelations by fugitive U.S. National
Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about sweeping
electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency.
Brennan vigorously defended the CIA's commitment to working
with Congress. "We are a far better organization because of
congressional oversight," he said.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Will Dunham;
Editing by David Storey and Cynthia Osterman)