Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is accusing the Central Intelligence Agency of deleting files from a Senate computer system, and while CIA Director John Brennan has ostensibly denied the incident, his statements have been vague enough to avoid addressing specific accusations by Feinstein.
The senator leveled the charges against the CIA in a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, alleging that intelligence agency workers discreetly deleted documents from Senate computers regarding a lengthy investigation into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture) against suspected terrorists during the Bush era.
“The CIA just went and searched the committee’s computers,” Feinstein said bluntly.
“This was done without the knowledge or approval of committee members or staff, and in violation of our written agreements. Further, this type of behavior would not have been possible had the CIA allowed the committee to conduct the review of documents here in the Senate,” Feinstein continued. “In short, this was the exact sort of CIA interference in our investigation that we sought to avoid at the outset.”
The files in question were memos from then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, allegedly condemning the agency’s interrogation techniques. They were stored on a computer system provided to the Senate by the CIA, but unlike many files in the system, were not provided by the CIA itself. Agency workers were apparently curious as to how Senate staff obtained the documents.
Because the files were removed from the Senate’s computer system, it’s unknown exactly what they said, but Feinstein says they made mention of “significant CIA wrongdoing” in the treatment of terrorism suspects.
Feinstein says the agency may have violated the Constitution in interfering with the investigation. She also said she sent a personal letter to CIA Director John Brennan asking for an apology, and a public admission that the CIA searched Senate computers without the Senate’s knowledge or permission.
"I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution,” Feinstein said. “It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities....I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate.”
Soon after Feinstein made the charges, Brennan denied that the agency had hacked into the Senate computer systems.
”As far as the allegation of CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth,” Brennan said during an event at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That’s just beyond the scope of reason.”
It’s worth noting, though, that Feinstein never actually accused the CIA of hacking into the Senate computer system. In fact, she explicitly noted that that the CIA accessed the files through a search function provided by the CIA itself.
“To be clear, the committee staff did not hack into CIA computers to obtain these documents, as has been suggested in the press,” Feinstein clarified during her speech. “The documents were identified using the search tool provided by the CIA to search the documents provided to the committee.”
Brennan’s language, then, is somewhat troubling, as it doesn’t address exactly what he and the CIA have been accused of. Similarly, when Brennan sat down with MSNBC on Tuesday, he denied the act of spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but he never actually denied that the CIA had deleted the file in question or that it accessed the Senate computer system. Arguably, one act of deleting a file from a computer system could be seen as something other than "spying" on the Senate committee.
“I know that there are a lot of claims out there, that the CIA has sought to prevent the SSCI from doing its work, but that’s not the case at all,” Brennan said. “Let me assure you that CIA, in no way, was spying on the SSCI or the Senate. We greatly respect the separation of power between the executive branch and the legislative branch.”
Even after MSNBC’s reporter explicitly asked Brennan about the deleted file, Brennan didn’t comment on it directly, instead assuring that the matter is being dealt with. Of course, none of this is evidence that Brennan or the CIA are hiding anything regarding the files, but it’s worth noting that while Brennan has denied several things, he hasn’t actually denied the acts Feinstein mentioned.