After shift in tone, Senator Dianne Feinstein is hailed for attack on CIA
Senate intelligence committee head accuses agency of hacking Congress computer network and interfering with congressional inquiry
Secret reports. Vanishing documents. Whispers of crime, intimidation and cover-up.
A quarrel between the CIA and the US Senate that's been rumbling beneath the surface for years burst into full view on Tuesday when Senator Dianne Feinstein laid it all out in eye-popping detail on the Senate floor.
Feinstein's outspoken criticism of "CIA interference" in a congressional investigation is in sharp contrast to her defence of an intelligence-gathering community that some say tramples on civil liberties.
Feinstein, who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, has fretted that the public was losing confidence "in the dedicated men and women of our intelligence community" because of a string of disclosures that she said often lacked important context. In particular, she has defended the collection by the National Security Agency (NSA) of massive amounts of phone records, revealed in detail by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Now the California Democrat has turned critical, claiming that Congress was the target of intelligence-gathering. In a Senate floor speech on Tuesday she accused the CIA of criminal activity in searching a computer network set up so lawmakers could review secret documents provided for an investigation into the use of harsh interrogation techniques.
The American Civil Liberties Union called her speech a "forceful, necessary and historic defence of the constitutional principle of separation of powers".
"After so many years of Congress being unable or unwilling to assert its authority over the CIA, Senator Feinstein today began to reclaim the authority of Congress as a check on the executive branch," said Christopher Alders, senior legislative counsel for the union.
CIA director John Brennan later denied the CIA had spied on the Senate oversight committee or had hacked its computers.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Brennan said. "We wouldn't do that. That's just beyond the scope of reason."
Brennan did not deny that the agency had audited activity logs of classified computers that Senate investigators used at a secure CIA facility to review 6.2 million pages of CIA operational cables, internal e-mails, memos and other documents relating to the agency's now-closed detention and interrogation programme.
The CIA data search in January sought to determine how Senate staff had obtained and copied a sensitive internal document in 2010 that the CIA insists they were not entitled to see.
The CIA had referred its own conduct and that of the Senate staff to the Justice Department for possible criminal investigation, officials said.
"Appropriate authorities right now are looking at what CIA officers as well as [Senate] staff members did," Brennan said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said he could not comment on Feinstein's charges because the Justice Department was considering the case.
Additional reporting by McClatchy-Tribune