Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
November 26, 2015

Feinstein: CIA Spied on Intelligence Committee (Updated) (Video)

Feinstein walks off the Senate floor Tuesday morning. (CQ Roll Call/Tom Williams)

Feinstein walks off the Senate floor Tuesday morning. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 5:27 p.m. | The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee torched the CIA in a floor speech Tuesday, charging the agency with spying on her committee’s computers in a possibly illegal search she said has been referred to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution.

The on-the-record allegations by Sen. Dianne Feinstein shook the Senate, with lawmakers in both parties warning of serious fallout if proved true. And her speech put the Department of Justice and the White House in an awkward spot between CIA Director John O. Brennan, who later denied the allegation of spying, and Feinstein, who has been a strong backer of the intelligence community generally and of President Barack Obama.

During her speech, the California Democrat said she learned from Brennan in a Jan. 15 meeting that the CIA improperly searched committee computer files as the committee neared the end of its yearslong investigation of the CIA’s interrogation and detainee practices, confirming several media reports. She said the incident has been referred to the Department of Justice. But Feinstein was also riled by a separate referral by the CIA to Justice suggesting that committee staff had improperly received classified information.

The California Democrat called that referral “a potential effort to intimidate this staff” and called the matter “a defining moment” for whether the Congress would be able to provide oversight of the intelligence community.

“Without prior notification or approval, CIA personnel had conducted a search — that was John Brennan’s word — of the committee computers at the offsite facility,” she said. “This search was not only of documents provided by the committee by the CIA but also a search of the stand-alone and walled-off committee network drive containing the committee’s own internal work product and communications.”

The CIA, it seems, was trying to figure out whether committee staff had managed to gain access to an internal review of CIA interrogation methods named after former CIA Director Leon E. Panetta.

“The CIA did not ask the committee or its staff if the committee had access to the internal review or how we obtained it. Instead, the CIA just went and searched the committee’s computers,” Feinstein said. “… In place of asking any questions, the CIA’s unauthorized search of the committee computers was followed by an allegation, which we now have seen repeated anonymously in the press, that the committee staff had somehow obtained the document through unauthorized or criminal means.”

Feinstein said her staff had handled the Panetta review properly and had received it from the CIA itself.

Feinstein had been quiet about previous news reports but said Tuesday that was no longer possible. She said the CIA has not answered repeated questions from the committee.

“I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, including the speech and debate,” she said.

Brennan strenuously denied allegations of hacking in an interview with NBC News.

“We weren’t trying to block anything, and the matter is being dealt with in the appropriate way, being looked at by the right authorities, and the facts will come out,” Brennan said. “But let me assure you that [the] CIA in no way was spying on the SSCI or the Senate. We greatly respect the separation of powers between the executive branch and the legislative branch, and we’re going to do everything possible to work with the committee in the future on its report.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations while the matter is under review, but offered a generic boost for Brennan.

“The president has great confidence in John Brennan,” he said, adding that the White House takes whatever Feinstein says “seriously.”

Feinstein seemed to have backing on both sides of the aisle, although Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee who Feinstein said attended the January meeting, would not immediately comment.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., offered a stark warning of the consequences if what she suggested proves true.

“This is Richard Nixon stuff. This is dangerous to the democracy,” Graham said. “Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it’s true.

“If it is, the legislative branch should declare war on the CIA,” Graham added.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has often disagreed with Feinstein over federal surveillance powers, was supportive Tuesday.

“In addition to the grave implications for the Constitutional separation of powers, I am extremely troubled that the CIA leadership has neither responded to specific questions about this search nor even acknowledged that it was inappropriate,” Wyden said in a statement. “This is simply not acceptable in a democracy.”

Texas Republican Ted Cruz said there shouldn’t be a rush to judgment. But, he said, “for the executive branch to spy on and hack into the computers of the United States Senate, is an extraordinary violation of the respect that each constitutional branch owes the other.”

Cruz connected the CIA search allegations to earlier cases of what conservatives in particular view as executive branch regulatory overreach, as well as an ongoing legal battle over recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board.

And Intelligence panel member Mark Udall, D-Colo., recently said the “CIA tried to intimidate” the panel.

Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., appeared on the floor shortly after Feinstein’s lengthy speech to praise her comments, calling for all senators to stand behind her.

“If we do not stand up for … the protection of the separation of powers and our ability to do oversight, especially when conduct has happened that is in all likelihood criminal by the part of a government agency, then what do we stand for?” Leahy asked. “We are supposed to be the conscience of the nation. The senator from California, Sen. Feinstein, has spoken to our conscience, every one of us, 100 senators. Men and women, both parties.”

Leahy told reporters her speech was one of the best he’s heard in his nearly 40 years in the Senate, “and one of the most important.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also praised Feinstein.

“I admire what she’s done, what the committee’s done, and especially her statement today. It was one of courage and conviction.”

John Gramlich and Carolyn Phenicie contributed to this report.

  • Bryan Gregory

    Boo Hoo, Senator Feinstein. It’s a legal search under the Patriot Act.
    Which you voted for. The CIA is just doing its job to ensure members of
    Congress are not a threat to national security. Welcome to the world the
    rest of us Americans live under now…thanks to you.

    • mac daddy

      What do you mean? Don’t you know that these people are above reproach? Representative democracy, my back.

    • Will Bishop

      Yes, while the search may be outrageous, Feinstein’s record on surveillance issues unfortunately doesn’t make her the best spokeswoman for the cause.

    • esquire1072

      Actually Congress exempts itself from the Patriot Act.

    • Locke


      It’s not a ‘legal search’ when the CIA is the agency that is being monitored.

      The CIA is UNDER the Senate,….not the other way around.

  • Layla

    The woman who helped to institute spying on the world is not happy she is being spied upon? Thinks her Constitutional rights were violated? Senator Feinstein, if it were up to me, you would be removed from office for what you have done to this country. The fact that you consider yourselves to be above the law speaks volumes.

  • Enzo

    You wonder how obama GOT HIS WAY on everything? This is how. He spied and then he BLACKMAILED. Some have been saying for a long time that he blackmailed the Supreme Court will any of this see the light of day or will the corrupt democrats and our corrupt Congress continue to HIDE it and cover it up?

    • Locke


      Your partisan stupidity is clearly evident.

      The CIA started this crap under your golden boy, Bush…….

  • DonMidwest

    Dan Froomkin just published an article and linked your transcript of the speech.

    Dan is now working for First Look Media and the first publication of it, The Intercept. Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and others work there as well.

  • Taxed 2 MUCH

    Where’s the outrage over the IRS use of power?
    SELECTIVE outrage is unbecoming

    • Locke


      You clearly would rather look at sound bite news than the facts…..

  • nomanzone

    If you give your meanest attack dogs unlimited red meat and complete freedom to go after your enemy for years, they will turn on their master when he tries to put a leash back on them.

    The NSA and CIA are now untamed monsters with their lives and purposes of their own. It is time to take back their powers and cut their budgets before more harms are be done to this country.

  • Ed Campbell

    I love Ed Snowden’s description – Senator Feinstein gets to have a Merkel moment. She discovered the thugs she’s been covering up for – snooped on her own activities.

    Chickens, roost, etc..

  • ian807

    Dear Congress. When you voted for the Patriot Act, when you allowed the formation of secret laws, secret committees, secret panels. Did you think it would never come back to haunt you? Really? If so, I submit that you are simply not competent to hold public office, or do much else, for that matter, due to excessive gullibility.

  • bigmuny

    It’s time to review where we are headed and why…

  • Plow Comms

    In this article, a Bolshevik liberal openly wages ideological warfare against the ideas and institutions of our sacred Constitution:

  • BMarie

    Why are we still wasting millions of dollars with this ridiculous investigation of the CIA that’s been going on for years? I don’t really care what they did to those terrorists – we didn’t hack off their heads like the terrorists did to Daniel Pearl while he was still alive. I was overseas when that video came out and it was broadcast on TV and I watched it and saw what barbarians these people are, and I use the word “people” very loosely. It should have been shown here too and maybe the bleeding heart liberals who seem to always be on the side of the criminals would quit whining about this. What we did to a few of them was nothing in comparison. Feinstein’s committee should quit publicizing all of this – we are beginning to look like a third world nation.

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