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Senate-CIA Clash Goes Behind Closed Doors

Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks with reporters after alleging that the CIA broke federal law by secretly removing sensitive documents from computers used by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the panel tasked with congressional oversight of the CIA.
Win McNamee
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Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks with reporters after alleging that the CIA broke federal law by secretly removing sensitive documents from computers used by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the panel tasked with congressional oversight of the CIA.

The dust is still settling on Capitol Hill after California Democrat Dianne Feinstein fired a verbal bazooka at the Central Intelligence Agency Tuesday morning from the Senate floor.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's chairwoman — normally a stalwart of Washington's spooks — essentially accused the spy agency of illegally and unconstitutionally spying on its congressional overseers.

Specifically, Feinstein charged that the CIA had searched computers used by her committee's staff during a five-year probe of the agency's clandestine detention centers and harsh interrogation practices following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

The investigation was carried out by the committee's Democratic majority, which compiled a 6,300-page report. It was finished in December 2012, but not made public, and Feinstein strongly suggested the CIA's actions — including a referral of her staffers' activity to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution — were an attempt to keep that document from ever seeing the light of day.

The 'Panetta Review'

Central to the dispute is a document the CIA apparently did not mean to include in the more than 6 million pages of records it made available for committee investigators to view on computers at a remote CIA-leased facility. Known as the Panetta review, it's an internal document that Feinstein said both analyzes and acknowledges "significant CIA wrongdoing." She did not explain just how it became available, other than to say it was found using a search tool.

But Feinstein also recognized that her staffers removed a printed portion of the Panetta review from the CIA facility for safekeeping at the committee's Capitol Hill office compound. Doing so, she insisted, had not breached any understanding with the CIA.

Hours later, CIA Director John Brennan denied his agency had hacked the Senate panel's computers.

"Nothing can be further from the truth," he said. "We wouldn't do that."

But Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the intelligence panel's top Republican, did not rule out wrongdoing on either side of the dispute when he addressed it on the Senate floor Wednesday.

"We do not know the actual facts concerning the CIA's alleged actions or all of the specific details about the actions by the committee staff [concerning the Panetta review]," he said, while noting that Republicans had not been involved in the panel's interrogation and detention probe. Both parties, Chambliss added, had made allegations against one another, "but there are still a lot of unanswered questions that must be addressed."

Chambliss said the situation may warrant a special investigator, but that does not currently seem to be in the cards — at least for now. After a closed-door meeting of the Intelligence Committee Thursday, North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr told NPR the panel had unanimously decided to carry out its own review.

"We've made a decision that we're going to pursue that as an internal course within the committee," he said, "and hopefully that will end any public review of most of the comments that are being made."

Another panel member, Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden, would not confirm what went on at the Thursday meeting. But he noted that CIA officials had earlier justified to news organizations the agency's search of the Senate's computers. "And then on Tuesday," Wyden added, "the CIA director tried to suggest that it really didn't happen at all. So there are a lot of questions here that don't add up."

Bipartisan Reaction

The outrage over the CIA's actions has been somewhat more bipartisan than the probe that led to the blowup. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is not on the intelligence panel, but he was caustic after being briefed on the matter.

"If the CIA used its technology and its skill set to hack into a computer owned by the oversight committee to try to cover their butts and find out what kind of exposure they may have in terms of oversight," Graham told NPR, "that can't be ignored. We've got to address it head on."

As for the 6,300-page committee report, President Obama said this week its findings should be made public. But Burr, who's in line to be the intelligence panel's top Republican once Chambliss retires at year's end, said that won't happen anytime soon. "There's not a completed report yet," he said. "My only focus right now is on making sure that whenever the report is produced, it's factual and represents exactly what happened."

Expect even bigger fireworks once that report's findings get released.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.