TIME Domestic Surveillance

Top Lawmaker Accuses CIA of Illegally Snooping on Senate

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks with reporters in the Capitol after a speech on the Senate floor that accused the CIA of searching computers set up for Congressional staff for their research of interrogation programs, March 11, 2014.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks with reporters in the Capitol after a speech on the Senate floor that accused the CIA of searching computers set up for Congressional staff for their research of interrogation programs, March 11, 2014. Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

Sen. Dianne Feinstein accused the Central Intelligence Agency of illegally spying on computers the agency gave to Senate staff for an investigation of Bush-era interrogation practices, taking public a war that once raged behind the scenes

The years-old conflict between the Senate and the CIA over an investigation into George W. Bush–era interrogation practices exploded into an all-out political war Tuesday when the top lawmaker on intelligence issues publicly accused the spy agency of illegally monitoring Senate computers used in the investigation.

Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein took to the floor Tuesday — “reluctantly,” she said — because “the increasing amount of inaccurate information circulating now cannot be allowed to stand unanswered.” Generally friendly with the intelligence community, Feinstein asserted that the CIA may have engaged in unconstitutional and criminal activity by interfering in an investigation of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — the body tasked with oversight of the intelligence community. The CIA, Feinstein alleged, appeared to have illegally snooped on Senate staff computers, stonewalled when it came to handing over documents and sought to have staff investigated. Her comments were the first public allegations of wrongdoing after congressional officials had anonymously made the accusations in recent news reports.

“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 clause,” Feinstein said. “Besides the constitutional implications, the CIA search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act,” as well as an Executive Order barring the CIA from conducting domestic surveillance, she said.

She specifically slammed the CIA’s acting general counsel, Robert Eatinger, who she said asked the Justice Department to investigate alleged mishandling of classified documents by Senate staff. And she implicitly accused Eatinger of attempting to bully committee staff to protect himself from the investigation.

“I view the acting general counsel’s referral as a potential effort to intimidate this staff, and I am not taking it lightly,” said Feinstein, a California Democrat. “I should note that for most, if not all, of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, the now acting general counsel was a lawyer in the CIA’s counterterrorism center — the unit within which the CIA managed and carried out this program.”

CIA Director John Brennan quickly fired back at Feinstein. “That’s just beyond the scope of reason,” Brennan said during an event at the Council on Foreign Relations. An interview with the CIA director responding to Feinstein’s allegations is set to air on MSNBC at noon and in full on NBC News on Tuesday evening.

Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who has worked on intelligence issues throughout his career, called Feinstein’s speech the most important he’s heard on the Senate floor in his 40 years as a member of the body. “She has spoken to our conscience, now let’s stand up for this country,” he said.

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