WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House tried to mediate between the CIA and the Senate panel that oversees it after both sides alleged they were spied on by the other over a Bush-era interrogation program, a source familiar with the discussion told Reuters on Wednesday.
The involvement of the White House’s most senior lawyer indicates President Barack Obama’s interest in ending the increasingly bitter dispute between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler has attempted to “de-escalate” the tension, the source said. The fight burst into the open on Monday when the committee chair Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said the CIA had possibly broken the law by spying on Congress.
CIA Director John Brennan denied that the spy agency had engaged in such activities, saying “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
In a Senate floor speech, Feinstein accused the agency of searching computers used by committee staffers examining CIA documents when they were researching counter-terrorism operations and the use of harsh interrogation methods such as simulated drowning or waterboarding.
The issue has escalated into a major fight over the interrogation program, which President Barack Obama halted shortly after taking office in 2009, and over the powers of the executive and legislative branches.
It was an unusual departure for Feinstein, who has been one of the strongest supporters of the natural security community in Congress, notably in the months since former contractor Edward Snowden began releasing secret information about U.S. surveillance programs.
The issue raised hackles in Congress, including calls for special investigators, reorganization at the CIA or criminal penalties.
“If it is true, heads should roll and people should go to jail,” South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said.
Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called it “incredible” that the CIA has not so far answered Feinstein’s questions.
But Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the intelligence panel, said it was too soon to make recommendations.
“Both parties have made allegations against one another and even speculated as to each other’s actions, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions that must be addressed,” he said in his own Senate speech a day after Feinstein’s.
At the heart of the dispute is a more than 6,000-page Senate report on the CIA program which was put in place after the September 11, 2001 attacks and included interrogation methods which critics say were a form of torture banned by international law.
Obama reiterated on Wednesday that he is “absolutely committed to declassifying that report as soon as that report is complete.”
“With respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA, John Brennan has referred them to the appropriate authorities and they are looking into it, and that’s not something that is appropriate ... for me and the White House to wade into at this point,” the president told reporters.
Brennan and the CIA contend that Senate staffers improperly got access to some sensitive agency documents as part of their review of the CIA detention and interrogation program, which took place at a secure agency building in northern Virginia.
The CIA’s acting general counsel, Robert Eatinger, referred the matter to the Justice Department for possible investigation.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Brennan and Eatinger informed the White House before making the referral.
Carney characterized the notification as “simply a heads-up,” and said the White House took no other action. “There was no comment. There was no weighing in. There was no judgment.”
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Ruemmler have been in touch with Republicans and Democrats about the review to get both it and minority Republicans’ dissenting views declassified, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told Reuters in an email.
Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Doina Chiacu and Mark Felsenthal. Editing by Alistair Bell, Phil Berlowitz and Andrew Hay