By Justin Sink
The White House was more deeply involved than previously known in attempting to mediate the dispute between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Senate committee investigating the spy agency’s interrogation practices, according to a pair of reports Wednesday night.
Reuters reported Wednesday evening that White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler attempted to “de-escalate” the conflict by mediating dueling complaints from Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and the Central Intelligence Agency.
According to the wire service, the White House has repeatedly ignored or rejected attempts by the committee to review the records, although President Obama has not formally declared the documents protected by executive privilege. The White House is able to withhold some communications between top aides from congressional investigations to allow an open and deliberative process among top aides.
The revelations could intensify pressure on the White House to weigh in on the deepening controversy, which has pitted one of its top congressional allies against the president’s intelligence leadership.
On Tuesday, Feinstein accused the Central intelligence Agency of improperly searching a secure computer network set up for congressional investigators examining enhanced interrogation policies carried out during the Bush administration.
Feinstein said she had "grave concerns" that the CIA had violated the constitution, said the agency removed access to documents that had been provided to lawmakers, and accused it of intimidating her staff.
The CIA, meanwhile, charged that Intelligence Committee staffers had improperly accessed internal documents regarding the interrogation program, and asked the Justice Department to investigate. CIA director John Brennan has denied that his agency hacked Senate computers, and the White House offered him a vote of confidence on Tuesday.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden on Wednesday acknowledged that the administration had “set aside” a “small percentage of the total number of documents” in the review because the records “raise Executive Branch confidentiality interests.”
But Hayden stressed that from the start of the Senate investigation in 2009, “all components of the Executive Branch have cooperated with the Committee to ensure access to the information necessary to review the CIA’s former program.”
“Throughout this process, the Administration has facilitated unprecedented access to more than six million pages of records,” Hayden said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday would not confirm that Ruemmler had been in contact with either Feinstein or CIA officials when the dispute over whether the intelligence agency had interfered with Senate computers first arose, but hinted that type of conversation may have taken place.
“I don't have a specific readout of any meeting,” Carney said. “What I can say is the White House counsel would get involved in this kind of discussion about this process because of institutional concerns surrounding these matters, again, even in this case, matters that involve a previous administration or previous White House.”
On Wednesday, Carney acknowledged that Ruemmler’s office had been given a “heads up” by the CIA that it planned to refer the dispute to the Justice Department.
"The CIA director and general counsel informed the White House that they were making a referral to the Department of Justice," Carney said.
"They also said they would be informing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. And as you would expect in this matter, and as appropriate, we did not weigh in on that. But we were simply given a heads-up about the referral."
Feinstein has charged that the CIA’s move to refer the case to to the Justice Department — and the implicit suggestion Senate staff had broken the law by accessing certain documents — was a bid to intimidate her investigators.
"There is no legitimate reason to allege to the Justice Department that Senate staff may have committed a crime," Feinstein said. "I view the acting general counsel's referral as a potential effort to intimidate this staff — and I am not taking it lightly."
Obama on Wednesday said he would not comment directly on the dispute between the CIA and Senate panel, citing the ongoing investigation.
"With respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA, John Brennan has referred them to the appropriate authorities and they are looking into it and that's not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point," Obama told reporters at an event about economic opportunity for women.
But Obama stressed that upon entering office in 2008, he immediately ended the enhanced interrogation program at the center of the dispute.
He said he was "absolutely committed" to the Senate investigation of the Bush-era practices, and planed to declassify the report as soon as it was finished.
"In fact, I would urge them to go ahead and complete the report and send it to us and we will declassify those findings so that the American people can understand what happened in the past and that can help guide us as we move forward," Obama said.