By Julie Pace
WASHINGTON: The public spat between President Barack Obama’s trusted CIA ally and a loyal senator has sharpened the focus on his complicated role in managing the terrorism-fighting programs he inherited.
Obama wants to stay neutral in the feud between Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and CIA Director John Brennan, Obama’s former top counterterrorism adviser.
Feinstein last week accused the CIA of illegally searching computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which she heads, to study documents related to the harsh interrogation techniques the CIA employed after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Obama said taking sides was “not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point.”
Staying out of the fray may prove difficult, given Obama’s involvement in the issue at the core of the dispute: What kind of public reckoning should there be for those who carried out waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods?
Even as Obama stated his neutrality in the Feinstein-Brennan dispute, he sent his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and top lawyer, Kathryn Ruemmler, to meet with the California senator.
The president has said he wants the report from Feinstein’s committee on the CIA program to be made public. The committee only undertook the review after Obama banned the interrogation techniques when he took office. His opposition to them was a centerpiece of his first presidential campaign, helping him build support among Democrats and independents.
“There’s no reason for him to in any way hide the truth of what happened,” said Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council spokesman.
Carrying out that pledge has proved complicated, marred by friction between Senate Democrats and the CIA, where many officials involved in the harsh interrogation program still work. One is Brennan, a senior agency official during the Bush administration.
Feinstein, in an extraordinary Senate speech last week, accused the CIA of illegally spying on her committee’s work.
Brennan responded by saying Senate investigators may have “improperly obtained and/or retained” sensitive CIA documents, in violation of the ground rules for how the classified materials would be handled. The agency’s acting general counsel asked the Justice Department to look into whether Senate staffers committed a crime.
The White House says the CIA notified the president’s lawyer that it was filing a complaint with the Justice Department. The White House did not weigh in with any judgment on that step, officials said.
“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,” Obama said.
Obama’s remarks were intended to illustrate his neutrality on the matter.
But Michael Hayden, a CIA director under President George W. Bush, said they were interpreted by intelligence agencies as “tacit acceptance from the White House” of the CIA’s move against Senate investigators.