Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein on Tuesday accused the CIA of illegally searching a computer used by Senate staffers to conduct an investigation into a CIA interrogation program that senators found deeply problematic.
The comments, made on the Senate floor, are Feinstein’s first on the issue, which has been playing out in media outlets. Reports have said that the CIA illegally accessed Senate staffers’ computer, and that Senate staffers had been accused of illegally removing classified CIA documents. On Tuesday, Feinstein went to the floor to “set the record straight.”
Staffers were going through millions of pages of documents to review a Bush-era CIA interrogation program — as Feinstein described it: “wading through the horrible details of the CIA program that never, never, never should have existed.” The materials were made available to them at a secure, off-site facility and the documents were on a computer, which, by agreement, was not meant to be accessible by CIA personnel other than the tech people.
It is that computer that Feinstein says was improperly searched by the CIA — twice. First in May of 2010, staffers found that documents they had once had access to were no longer available. A series of explanations was given for the removal: The CIA first “denied the documents had been removed,” then “blamed information technology personnel who were almost all contractors for removing the documents themselves without direction or authority,” and then said it was “ordered by the White House,” which the White House denied. The CIA and the committee renewed the agreement that the CIA would stay out.
Then, in January of this year, “CIA Director Brennan requested an emergency meeting to inform me and Vice Chairman Chambliss that without prior notification or approval, CIA personnel had conducted a search — that was John Brennan’s word — of the committee computers at the offsite facility. This search was not only of documents provided by the committee by the CIA but also of the stand-alone and walled-off committee network drive containing the committee’s own internal work product and communications.”
Brennan explained that the search was “in response to indications that some members of the committee staff might already have had access to the internal Panetta review,” a document that the staffers were in fact given access to in the trove of documents provided to them by the CIA. The document was an internal analysis that was critical of the interrogation program and came to many of the same conclusions as the Senate Committee report that resulted from the staffers’ research.
The allegations that the committee staff improperly accessed or removed documents, Feinstein said, were entirely unfounded, as they had access to them in the first place, and that when they were removed from the secure facility, protocols were followed. She said she viewed the acting Counsel General of the CIA’s filing of a “crimes report with the Department of Justice concerning Committee staff’s actions” to be a “potential effort to intimidate this staff, and I am not taking it lightly.” She noted that the acting counsel was also the lawyer for the department that ran the interrogation program of note, and that “he is mentioned by name more than 1,600 times in our study.”
“Based on what Director Brennan has informed us, I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, including the speech and debate clause,” Feinstein said, adding that she believed it also violated some laws.
Feinstein called this a “defining moment.”
“How this will be resolved will show whether the Intelligence Committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee,” she said.