CIA and senators in bitter dispute over Capitol Hill spying claims
John Brennan, CIA director, rebukes intelligence committee as tensions over torture findings explode into public sphere
Spencer Ackerman in Washington
5 March 2014
Relations between the CIA and the US senators charged with its political oversight were at a nadir on Wednesday after the head of the agency issued a rare public rebuke to lawmakers who accused it of spying on their staff.
John Brennan, the director of the CIA, said the claims by members of the Senate intelligence committee were "spurious" and "wholly unsupported by the facts", and went as far as suggesting the committee itself may have been guilty of wrongdoing.
The battle stems from a hotly contested report into the use of torture by the CIA in the interrogations it carried out after 9/11, whose conclusions are so explosive that it has yet to be declassified, despite exhortations from the White House that a summary should be published.
Earlier on Wednesday reports surfaced that the CIA inspector general had opened an inquiry, said to have been referred to the justice department, into claims that CIA employees had acted improperly. Suggestions that the CIA had monitored the computer networks of committee staffers had shocked the senators that sit on the panel. Some observers believe that such actions might be criminal.
Senator Mark Udall, a member of the committee who has been vocal in his critism of the CIA, had earlier written to Barack Obama alleging that the president knew about the "unprecedented action" carried out by the agency.
In his statement on Wednesday Brennan hit back in unusually strong terms. "I am deeply dismayed that some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts," Brennan said.
"I am very confident that the appropriate authorities reviewing this matter will determine where wrongdoing, if any, occurred in either the executive branch or legislative branch," Brennan continued, raising a suggestion that the Senate committee itself might have acted improperly.
He did not immediately specify the "appropriate authorities" in question.
"Until then I would encourage others to refrain from outbursts that do a disservice to the important relationship that needs to be maintained between intelligence officials and congressional overseers."
Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, declined to comment on Brennan's remarks, but confirmed the existence of an inquiry by the CIA inspector general.
The allegation that the CIA may have surreptitiously monitored the committee responsible for holding it to account represented a modern low in relations between the two. It blew into public view the acrimony that has developed in private over the Senate panel's still-classified inquiry into the agency's use of torture techniques on post-9/11 terrorism detainees. The panel has intimated that the CIA misled both the committee and policymakers about the efficacy of the techniques and related issues.
In his letter, sent on Tuesday, Udall sought to enlist the White House's aid on the subject, intimating that Obama had been made aware of the issue. "As you are aware the CIA has recently taken unprecedented action against the committee in relation to the internal CIA review and I find these actions to be incredibly troubling for the committee's oversight powers and for our democracy," Udall wrote  to Obama on Tuesday.
Neither Udall, the White House nor the justice department would comment on the subject during a day notable for bitterness between a committee that has accorded the CIA much deference in recent years and an agency that has been determined to restore its reputation on Capitol Hill after intelligence failures on the Iraq war plunged its standing to historic lows.
Observers expressed alarm about the reports of the CIA inspector general inquiry, first revealed by McClatchy and the New York Times, raising the disturbing prospect of a bitter public fight between an angry intelligence agency and its elected overseers.
"In the worst case it would be a subversion of independent oversight and a violation of separation of powers," Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, told the Guardian. "It's potentially very serious."
Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International said: "If the reports are true the CIA appears to have doubled down on its own wrongdoing, a shocking but sadly unsurprising move given the agency's role in torture. The key question is whether President Obama has the backbone to finally set things right."
The White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told the Guardian on Wednesday that Obama supported declassifying the major findings of the Senate report -- although Aftergood pointed out that Obama could do so at will.
Hayden said: "For some time the White House has made clear to the chairman of the Senate select committee on intelligence that a summary of the findings and conclusions of the final report should be declassified, with any appropriate redactions necessary to protect national security."