The chairwoman of the US senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, yesterday accused the Central Intelligence Agency of a catalogue of cover-ups, intimidation and smears aimed at investigators probing its role in an "un-American and brutal" programme of postSeptember-11 detention and interrogation.
In a bombshell statement on the floor of the Senate, Feinstein, normally an administration loyalist, accused the CIA of potentially violating the US constitution and of criminal activity in its attempts to obstruct her committee's investigations into the agency's use of torture. She described the crisis as a "defining moment" for political oversight of the US intelligence service.
Her unprecedented public assault on the CIA represented an intensification of the row between the committee and the agency over a still-secret report on the torture of terrorist suspects after September 11. Resolution of the crisis, Feinstein suggested, might come this week at the White House.
Feinstein confirmed recent reports that CIA officials had monitored computer networks used by Senate staff investigators. Going further than previously, she referred openly to recent attempts by the CIA to remove documents from the network detailing evidence of torture that would incriminate intelligence officers.
She also alleged that anonymous CIA officials were effectively conducting a smear campaign in the media to discredit and "intimidate" Senate staff by suggesting they had hacked into the agency's computers to obtain a separate, critical internal report on the detention and interrogation programme.
Staff working on the Senate investigation have been reported to the Department of Justice for possible criminal charges by a lawyer at the CIA who himself features heavily in the alleged interrogation abuses. The CIA's inspector general has another inquiry open into the issue.
Feinstein said this was a possible attempt at "intimidation" and revealed that CIA officials had also been reported to the Department of Justice for alleged violations of the fourth amendment and laws preventing them from domestic spying.
"This is a defining moment for the oversight role of our intelligence committee … and whether we can be thwarted by those we oversee," said Feinstein in a special address on the floor of the US Senate. "There is no legitimate reason to allege to the Justice Department that Senate staff may have committed a crime … This is plainly an attempt to intimidate these staff and I am not taking it lightly."
CIA Director John Brennan, asked about Feinstein's accusations, said the agency was not trying to stop the committee's report and that it had not hacked into Senate computers. He said the appropriate authorities would look at the matter.
"I defer to them to determine whether or not there was any violation of law or principle."