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WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) delivered a devastating broadside against the CIA Tuesday, alleging that the agency was trying to intimidate Congress and may have broken the law in spying on Senate staffers.
Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was responding to CIA charges that Senate staffers had hacked CIA computers to learn that the spy agency was in fact spying on the people charged with overseeing its activities. Those revelations surfaced last week, prompting the countercharge against the CIA and a CIA complaint to the Justice Department.
But Feinstein, who is often a strong defender of the intelligence community, hammered the agency in a morning Senate floor speech, saying that the CIA knew of every step the Intelligence Committee staffers took and that the CIA provided all the documents that the agency later questioned.
To allege that staffers may have broken the law was dishonest, she said, and smacked of an attempt to bully civilians responsible for checking agency abuses.
“Our staff involved in this matter have the appropriate clearances, handled the sensitive material according to established procedures and practice to protect classified information, and were provided access to the [documents] by the CIA itself,” Feinstein said. “As a result, there is no legitimate reason to allege to the Justice Department that Senate staff may have committed a crime. I view the [CIA’s] acting general counsel’s referral [to the Justice Department] as a potential effort to intimidate this staff, and I am not taking it lightly.”
Feinstein also rattled her own saber, noting that the CIA official who referred the matter to the Justice Department was himself at the center of the very CIA interrogation techniques her committee is currently investigating. The Intelligence Committee has prepared a secret, 6,000-page report on the agency’s interrogation programs that is expected to outline a number of illegal activities and bring into question the value of such programs.
The remarkable flare-up stems from an agreement between the CIA and the committee that the agency could monitor the committee’s use of the agency’s computers, which were provided to Senate staffers in a secure room at the CIA. Staffers were able to analyze millions of documents on the computers in order to create the report on CIA interrogation techniques.
Feinstein also said Tuesday that she is pushing the White House to find a way to release that classified 6,000-page report so that the public can learn what the CIA has done in its name.
“I have asked for an apology, and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by this oversight committee was inappropriate. I have received neither,” Feinstein said. “Besides the constitutional implications, the CIA search may have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as [an executive order], which bars the CIA from conducting domestic surveillance.”
Feinstein added that the CIA’s inspector general, David Buckley, has referred the CIA’s actions to the Justice Department for investigation.
The DOJ and CIA could not immediately be reached for comment. A CIA spokesman deferred comment to CIA Director John Brennan, who was expected to speak at 11 a.m. EDT.
UPDATE: 11:45 a.m. ET — Brennan later adamantly denied that the CIA had broken any laws, but allowed that all the facts were not yet out.
“As far as allegations about CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn’t do that. That’s just beyond the scope of reason,” Brennan said, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But pushed by NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, who was moderating the event, Brennan admitted that there was considerable doubt about what has happened.
“Appropriate authorities right now, both inside of CIA as well as outside of CIA, are looking at what CIA officers as well as what [Senate] staffers did,” Brennan said. “I defer to them.”
Asked what he would do if Feinstein’s allegations prove true, Brennan demurred, and suggested lawmakers should cool down.
“I will deal with the facts as uncovered in the appropriate manner,” he said. “I would just encourage members of the Senate to take their time, to make sure that they don’t overstate what they claim and what they probably believe to be the truth. These are some complicated matters.”
He left whether or not he should keep his job to President Barack Obama.
“If I did something wrong, I will go to the president and I will explain to him exactly what I did, and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or go,” Brennan said.
The 6,000-page report is extremely sensitive to the intelligence agency, and advocates of publicizing the report have accused the CIA of dragging its feet.
Brennan denied any intentional delays as well.
“We are not in any way, shape or form trying to thwart this report’s progression or release,” he said. Admitting that practices such as waterboarding — which Obama has banned — represent a dark chapter in the CIA’s record, he added, “We want this behind us.”
UPDATE: 1:51 p.m. — Asked later about Brennan’s pushback and how the facts of the dispute might ultimately come out, Feinstein stood her ground. “The facts just did come out,” she told several reporters on Capitol Hill.
UPDATE: 1:56 p.m. — White House press secretary Jay Carney later ducked the issue, reiterating that the investigation falls to the CIA’s inspector general.
President Obama has “great confidence” in Brennan, Carney said during his daily briefing. He added that if there has been any “inappropriate activity,” the president “would want to get to the bottom of it.”
Read Feinstein’s speech in full here.
This is a developing story and will be updated.