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A political firestorm erupted in Washington on Tuesday when a key lawmaker took to the Senate floor to accuse the nation’s top spy agency of possibly breaking the law and violating the U.S. Constitution.
On one side, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who alleges that the CIA has been spying on her panel. On the other, CIA Director John Brennan, who insists that the agency didn’t snoop or attempt to intimidate the committee.
There’s been a lot of back-and-forth over her accusations. Here’s a look at what’s behind this brouhaha and what happens next.
What’s at the root of this battle?
Starting in 2009, the Intelligence Committee began a three-year investigation of the Bush-era CIA program (2002 to 2006) which used harsh or “enhanced” techniques, or, as some have charged, torture, for interrogating al-Qaida terrorist suspects.
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As part of that investigation, the CIA provided 6.2 million pages of documents, stored on a CIA computer network, to the committee. Those documents were stored in a stand-alone computer system at what Feinstein called “a secure location in northern Virginia.”
What does Feinstein accuse the CIA of doing?
She said in a Senate speech Tuesday that CIA employees interfered with her committee’s investigation by removing from the computer system certain documents that previously had been available to the committee. She said this violated the agreement that she and the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee had made with then-CIA Director Leon Panetta in 2009.
Feinstein also charged that the CIA had carried out an improper “search” of the computer system that Senate staffers were using. She added that that the CIA had falsely accused committee staffers of getting a key document by illegal means, perhaps hacking into the CIA’s own network.
The California Democrat said that CIA search may have undermined the constitutional principle of Separation of Powers. She demanded an apology from Brennan and said she hasn’t received one.
What’s the key CIA document at stake here?
Feinstein said that Intelligence Committee staffers also came across drafts of a document called the “Internal Panetta Review” on the CIA-provided computer network. She said that document confirms “significant CIA wrongdoing” during the 2002-2006 interrogations. Feinstein said the committee staff printed copies of the Internal Panetta Review and stored them in a safe in a secure room of the Hart Senate Office Building.
Unlike the official CIA response to the committee investigation of the interrogation techniques, Feinstein said, “these Panetta Review documents were in agreement with the committee’s findings. That’s what makes them so significant and important to protect.” She seemed to imply that the CIA might destroy this document just as it destroyed videotapes of some of the interrogations.
Where’s the report Feinstein’s committee has written on the interrogation program?
The report is finished but the committee has not yet released it. Brennan said Tuesday that the committee has not yet submitted its report to the CIA for declassification review.
“It's not as though we're holding it back … It’s up to them to decide whether or not they want to put it out publically or not,” he said.
He added that there are conclusions in the report that he disagrees with and “I think they missed a lot of important points. But it’s their prerogative. I'm not going to stand in the way.”
But Brennan said he will insist on preventing disclosure of CIA sources and methods.
Why was Brennan’s Senate confirmation early last year so contentious and what was Feinstein’s role then?
Some senators (led by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul) challenged the CIA’s use of drones to kill an al Qaida suspect who was an American citizen in Yemen. Brennan told Paul the CIA “does not conduct lethal operations inside the United States -- nor does it have any authority to do so.”
Other senators opposed him because they thought he’d leaked to the news media details of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
And other senators questioned whether Brennan himself had a role in the use of harsh interrogation techniques.
“I did not take steps to stop the CIA’s use of those techniques. I was not in chain of command of that program,” Brennan told Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R- Ga. “I was aware of the program -- I was CC’d on some of those documents -- but I had no oversight,” he added. At the time of the controversial interrogation program which is the focus of the Senate investigation, Brennan was the Deputy Executive Director of the CIA.
He also said, “I had expressed my personal objections and views to some agency colleagues” about methods such as waterboarding.
But Feinstein called Brennan “a fine and strong leader” and said that his 25 years as a CIA analyst, head of counter-terrorism efforts and White House homeland security advisor make him the best person for the job. “No one is better prepared to be CIA director than Mr. Brennan,” she said.
How is the Justice Department involved this controversy?
Two top lawyers at the CIA have referred the computer snooping matter to the Justice Department for possible criminal investigation.
On one side the CIA inspector general referred the CIA’s search of the computer used by Intelligence Committee staff to Justice Department for investigation of possible criminal violations. But on the other hand, the CIA’s acting general counsel filed a report with the Justice Department about potential wrongdoing by Intelligence Committee staffers.