By Jonathan S. Landay
and Ali Watkins
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON: The chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence charged Tuesday that the CIA may have broken the law and violated the Constitution by secretly infiltrating computers used by her staff to assemble a scathing report on the spy agency’s now-defunct detention and interrogation program.
“The CIA just went and searched the committee’s computers,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Feinstein unleashed her stunning charges in an address on the Senate floor that lifted the veil on an extraordinary power struggle over the release of the report that has been raging behind the scenes for months between the CIA and the panel, created in 1976 to oversee U.S. intelligence organizations. “The CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution,” Feinstein said. “It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities.”
In addition, she said CIA intrusions into her staff’s computers also may have breached the Fourth Amendment’s bar on illegal searches, a law prohibiting computer fraud and a 1981 presidential order that restricts the agency’s authority to spy on U.S. citizens.
CIA Director John Brennan denied Feinstein’s allegations after a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations marking his first year leading the spy agency.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that,” Brennan said. “That’s just beyond … the scope of reason in terms of what we’d do.”
Denouncing the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques during the George W. Bush administration, Feinstein said the resolution of the battle would determine the ability of her committee to be an effective watchdog over the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
“The recent actions that I have just laid out make this a defining moment for the oversight [powers] of our Intelligence Committee,” Feinstein said. “How this will be resolved will show whether the Intelligence Committee will be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities.”
Many experts, including former U.S. military commanders and officials, have condemned as torture the use of the harsh techniques in the interrogations of suspected terrorists in secret CIA “black site” prisons overseas. The Bush administration and the agency contend the methods were legal, although it has emerged that the CIA used some techniques before the program underwent a Justice Department legal review.
Brennan denied that the CIA was trying to impede the release of the committee study.
In a Jan. 27 letter to Feinstein, Brennan acknowledged that the CIA conducted “a limited review” of the staff computers in response to a “breach or vulnerability” in an agency computer network that allowed her staff to obtain documents that he contended they were not authorized to have.