Feinstein accuses CIA of ‘intimidating’ Senate staff over torture report

Dan Roberts and Spencer Ackerman

The chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, on Tuesday 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 post-9/11 detention and interrogation.

Feinstein accuses CIA of 'intimidating' Senate staff over torture report

In a bombshell statement on the floor of the US 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 9/11.

Feinstein, who said she was making her statement “reluctantly”, confirmed recent reports that CIA officials had been accused of monitoring 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. John Brennan, the CIA director, rejected Feinstein’s claims that the agency had monitored the Senate committee’s computer networks, which were set up specifically for it to access confidential CIA documents.

Feinstein said the two investigations, launched at the behest of the CIA, amounted to an attempt at “intimidation”. She 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 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.”

Feinstein said that she would immediately appeal to the White House to declassify the report’s major findings. The White House is formally on record as supporting the declassification, which the president has the power to order.

Last week, CIA director John Brennan, a former counterterrorism aide to President Obama, issued a rare scathing public statement on the deepening crisis, suggesting that unspecified “wrongdoing” had occurred in “either the executive branch or legislative branch.” Brennan, who withdrew from consideration as CIA director in 2008 out of allegations he did not consider torture to be a serious offence, is a year into his tenure after being nominated by Obama .

At a previously scheduled event reflecting on the first year on Tuesday, Brennan rejected the accusation that the CIA had thwarted the Senate investigation, and denied the agency had inappropriately accessed Senate computers. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn’t do that,” he said. Brennan pointed out that he had referred the matter to the CIA inspector general, who was investigating, and would defer to his conclusions.

CIA director John Brennan addresses accusations that it thwarted a Senate investigation into its torture programme.
CIA director John Brennan addresses accusations that it thwarted a Senate investigation into its torture programme. Photograph: Yuri Gripas/Reuters

He also acknowledged there was a Justice Department investigation that encompassed the Senate committee staff members. “There are appropriate authorities are looking at what CIA officers and SSCI staff members did – and I defer to them as to whether there was any violation,” he said.

Brennan said the CIA wanted to put the issue of the torture programme, which he described by its agency nomenclature as “rendition, detention and interrogation”, behind it. “Even as we have learned from the past, we must also try to put the past behind us.” he said.

The White House said Obama was aware of the Senate claims but refused to say whether the president was concerned or pass comment on the substance of the allegations. “This is a matter involving protocols established for the interaction between committee staff and the CIA,” said spokesman Jay Carney. “There are periodic disputes about this process and it is under two separate investigations so I am not going to provide an analysis of it.”

He also criticised reporters who questioned the independence of the review led by the CIA inspector general, accusing one of “impugning the integrity” of inspectors general across Washington by suggesting such a review was insufficient response to allegations of this magnitude. The White House has “great confidence” in CIA director John Brennan, added Carney.

On the Senate floor earlier, Patrick Leahy, chairman of the judiciary committee and the longest serving US senator, described Feinstein’s speech at the most important he had witnessed in his time in Congress.

“I cannot think of any speech by any member of any party as important as the one the senator from California just gave,” Leahy said.

Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, an intelligence committee member, said in a statement he applauded Feinstein for “setting the record straight today on the Senate floor about the CIA’s actions to subvert congressional oversight”.

Udall said: “The actions the chairman outlined are the latest events that illustrate why I directly pushed CIA director Brennan to acknowledge the flaws in and misrepresentations about the CIA’s brutal and ineffective detention and interrogation program.

“Unfortunately, the CIA responded by trying to hide the truth from the American people about this program and undermine the Senate intelligence committee’s oversight role by illegally searching committee computers.”

In her speech, Feinstein described repeated attempts by the CIA to frustrate the work of Senate investigators, including providing the committee staff with a “document dump” of millions of non-indexed pages, requiring years of work to sort through – a necessity, Feinstein said, after former senior CIA official Jose Rodriguez destroyed nearly 100 videotapes showing brutal interrogations of detainees in CIA custody.

“We are not going to stop our investigation and have sent our report to the president in the hope it can be declassified and published for the American people to see,” Feinstein said on the Senate floor.

She said the goal of declassifying the report, exposing the “horrible details of a CIA programme that never, never should have existed,” was to prevent torture from ever again becoming American policy.

Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International called on the White House to publish the committee’s report. “President Obama, who has claimed to have the most transparent administration in history, should move immediately to declassify and release the report. Otherwise, the legacy of torture he inherited will become his own,” he said.

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