Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Intelligence Committee, has accused the CIA of searching Senate computers for copies of an internal agency interrogation report, accusing the CIA of violating both anti-hacking laws and the Constitution. In a speech on the Senate floor this morning, Feinstein corroborated reports made earlier by McClatchy, saying that the CIA had first stonewalled committee members who were trying to investigate its interrogation practices, rifled through files to figure out what they knew, and then turned around and accused them of stealing the report, intimidating staff in the process. "I have grave concerns that the CIA's search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution," she said. "It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective Congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function."

CIA search "undermined" Constitution

Over the course of several years, the Intelligence Committee has been investigating the CIA's interrogation practices during the George W. Bush administration, an era marked by recourse to waterboarding and other practices that have been described as torture. According to Feinstein, the CIA consistently threw up roadblocks, hiring a separate team of contractors to look through the documents before handing them over and requiring committee staffers to visit a CIA facility in order to look through the files. More troublingly, she says that the CIA would sometimes surreptitiously remove files from the database. One such document was known as the Panetta report, an internal document whose conclusions conflicted with the official CIA position on how useful its interrogation efforts had actually proved.

But committee staffers, having allegedly realized that the CIA was tampering with the database, had already taken partial, redacted copies back to Capitol Hill. "There was a need to preserve and protect the internal Panetta review in the committee's own secure spaces," says Feinstein. In December, Intelligence Committee member Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) revealed in a hearing that the committee knew about the report. A month later, Feinstein says, CIA director John Brennan asked for an emergency meeting.

[Brennan said] 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. This search involved not only a search of documents provided to the committee by the CIA, but also a search of the standalone and walled-off committee network drive containing the committee's own internal work product and communications. According to Brennan, the computer search was conducted in response to indications that some members of the committee staff might already have had access to the internal Panetta review.

McClatchy published these accusations from anonymous sources last week, and a letter from Sen. Udall to the White House has apparently prompted an internal CIA investigation of the issue. At the time of the search, however, the CIA went heavily on the offensive, accusing staffers of getting unauthorized access to the report and, in Feinstein's words, "filed a crimes report with the Department of Justice concerning the committee staff's actions." Feinstein has insisted that the transportation of the documents was entirely legal and carried out in a way that wouldn't compromise security.

Feinstein has accused the CIA of violating the Fourth Amendment, Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and Executive Order 12333, which governs US intelligence activities. Although there are significant differences between this case and the NSA's surveillance efforts, Feinstein has been an outspoken advocate of the latter, and this speech has brought no small amount of schadenfreude for her opponents. But it's also an extremely serious allegation against the CIA, which Feinstein excoriated in her speech for, among other things, destroying interrogation tapes under the Bush administration. And Feinstein, an extremely powerful member of the Senate, is in a place to keep the agency under fire.

Update: In an interview at the Council on Foreign Relations, CIA head John Brennan has denied Feinstein's accusations. "We are not in any way, shape, or form trying to thwart this [Senate] report's progression," he said. "As far as the allegations of the CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further form the truth. We wouldn't do that. That's just beyond the scope of reason." Brennan said he would defer to investigators both inside and outside the agency, but he urged members of Congress not to "overstate" their claims.