An ugly row between the CIA and the US Senate Intelligence Committee has burst into the open after the panel’s chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, accused the spy agency of illegally interfering with an investigation into its interrogation and detention of terror suspects during the George W Bush era.
In an irate speech in the Senate, Ms Feinstein, a Democrat, accused the CIA of removing reams of documents that it had previously provided to her committee, which was investigating whether torture laws were broken in questioning suspects.
She also blasted the agency for allowing one of its top lawyers to refer a criminal complaint against her researchers to the Justice Department which alleges that they had illegally accessed and copied a confidential internal CIA review of what had happened during those years.
“I view the... referral as a potential effort to intimidate this staff, and I am not taking it lightly,” she thundered.
The tirade was striking because in the past she has been a staunch defender of the federal intelligence agencies, most recently amid leaks from the fugitive former CIA analyst, Edward Snowden. In essence, she accused the CIA of spying on Congress, which, if true, would clearly be an extraordinary breach of the walls separating the legislative and executive branches of government.
It drew swift denials from John Brennan, the CIA director. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said, answering questions from NBC news. “We wouldn’t do that... that’s just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.” He noted that Ms Feinstein’s concerns would now be independently addressed by the Justice Department and urged caution in the meantime.
Other prominent members of the Senate, from both parties, also expressed alarm at the suggestion of CIA interference in the committee’s work. “Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it’s true,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican. “If it is, the legislative branch should declare war on the CIA.”
“If we do not stand up for the protection of the separation of powers and our ability to do oversight, especially when conduct has happened that is in all likelihood criminal conduct on the part of a government agency, then what do we stand for?” asked Senator Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
The long-awaited report into what lines may have been crossed by CIA interrogators in the years after 9/11 has yet to be released. When the investigation began, the agency provided researchers from the Senate committee with computers in a safe-room in Virginia, with special electronic tools to search the CIA’s own documentation. But according to Ms Feinstein, in 2010 it then removed more than 900 documents without telling the committee.
She meanwhile acknowledged that the researchers had accessed the disputed internal CIA review and that parts of it had been copied and placed in a Senate safe. But she insisted the review had been part of the bundle of documents the CIA had originally agreed to make available. Keeping the review in a safe place was crucial, she said, in light of the CIA previously destroying potentially incriminating videos of interrogation sessions with al-Qa’ida detainees.
Senator Feinstein did not name the CIA lawyer who had ordered the criminal referral to the Justice Department but noted that he was “mentioned by name more than 1,600 times in our study”. She added: “And now this individual is sending a crimes report to the Department of Justice on the actions of congressional staff.”