Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. talks to reporters Tuesday as she leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, after saying that the CIA's improper search of a stand-alone computer network established for Congress has been referred to the Justice Department. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
WASHINGTON — A marathon Senate investigation into allegations of CIA torture during the Bush-era war on terror is veering toward partisan political territory and possibly the federal courts after unusually pointed accusations against the spy agency, including potential criminal wrongdoing.
As a result of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s remarks Tuesday, yet another investigation may be in the offing to sort out what the CIA did — or didn’t do — to help or hamper Senate investigators.
Already, the episode has the markings of a classic Washington controversy as interpretations of facts diverge, some lawmakers choose sides, others suggest the new probe and the White House seeks a middle ground.
At its core, the controversy involves Feinstein’s allegation that a CIA search of a computer network it set up for Senate investigators may have violated the Constitution and federal law.
“As far as allegations of the CIA hacking Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth,” the agency’s director, John Brennan, said Tuesday, denying an allegation that Feinstein, D-Calif., did not make in her extensive remarks on the Senate floor.
Brennan said the agency had not sought to thwart Senate investigators put to work investigating the issue. He added that the agency was eager to put to rest the controversy stemming from the interrogation of detainees in the war on terror, and said agency personnel “believe strongly in the necessity of effective, strong and bipartisan congressional oversight.”
But bipartisanship seemed to erode in the wake of Feinstein’s speech, in which she said the CIA’s search of the dedicated computer system possibly violated the Constitution as well as federal law and an executive order that prohibits the agency from conducting domestic searches.
Several Democrats praised her, while some Republicans pointedly did not.
“I support Sen. Feinstein unequivocally, and I am disappointed that the CIA is apparently unrepentant for what I understand they did,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters in the Capitol.
Another Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said Feinstein had learned the lesson established by an investigative committee that looked into FBI and CIA activities more than three decades ago.
“She’s speaking the truth,” he said. “The Church Committee taught us you’ve got to be willing to do that or you’re not going to get the truth,” he added, referring to the long-ago investigation headed by the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho.
One Republican also had a warning for the CIA. “Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it’s true,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said.
But he appeared to be in a minority within his party.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said he disagreed with Feinstein on the dispute with the CIA, without fully specifying how. “Right now we don’t know what the facts are,” he told reporters. “We’re going to continue to deal with this internally.”
A second committee Republican, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, declined to comment, saying he had not yet read Feinstein’s speech.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the party’s leader, declined to comment on the ongoing investigation into what happened.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped most questions on the subject and reminded reporters, “We are talking about an investigation into activities that occurred under the previous administration” and which President Barack Obama ended soon after taking office.
Carney said Obama wants the report’s findings to be declassified eventually.
There were suggestions that yet another investigation be established to look into Feinstein’s charges and Brennan’s rebuttal, a process that could add months if not years to a public accounting of detentions and interrogations that occurred a decade or more ago.
The activities at issue were approved by the George W. Bush administration and carried out by the CIA in the years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Obama outlawed their use when he became president in January 2009. The committee began an investigation two months later, and the CIA provided access to documents totaling more than 6.2 million pages, Feinstein said.
The Senate committee staff wrote a 6,300-page report that the panel approved in December 2012, and the CIA provided a formal response six months later. Neither the full report nor a shorter summary has been released to the public.
In her speech, Feinstein accused the CIA of possible criminal activity in improperly searching the computer network set up for lawmakers investigating allegations that the agency used torture in terror investigations during the Bush administration.
In addition, more than 900 pages of documents the CIA initially made available to Senate aides were inexplicably withdrawn in the first few months of 2010, she said.
“I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate. I have received neither,” she said.
Brennan told Feinstein in a letter in January that he took responsibility for ordering CIA technicians to audit the computer systems used by the Senate staffers — to determine whether there was a security breach.
In the letter, shared with CIA workers and obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday, Brennan said he asked for the review after finding that Senate investigators may have “improperly obtained and/or retained … sensitive CIA documents” that the CIA had no record of sharing with them. He repeated his request for their return.
Feinstein also disclosed that after the CIA inspector general had referred the agency’s conduct to the Justice Department, a top spy agency lawyer in return “filed a crimes report … concerning the committee staff’s actions.”
Feinstein said she viewed the move as “a potential effort to intimidate this staff — and I am not taking it lightly.”
The lawmaker did not name the CIA official, although congressional officials identified him as Robert Eatinger. Feinstein said he had once worked in the unit at the agency that carried out the activities under investigation. “He is mentioned by name more than 1,600 times in our study,” she added.
Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper, Donna Cassata and Stephen Braun contributed to this report.