Lawmakers are scrambling to understand the feud between Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and CIA Director John Brennan that burst into public view this week.
Each side has accused the other of violating the law, after Senate investigators removed a classified document from a CIA facility amid evidence the agency spied on them and attempted to hamper their probe.
Here are five things to know about the controversy that could drag on for months:
Feinstein said Tuesday that CIA officials removed important intelligence documents from what she described as a “stand-alone computer system” with “a network drive segregated from CIA networks” that had been set up for exclusive use by Senate investigators under an agreement with former CIA Director Leon Panetta.
Panetta proposed the arrangement after the Senate Intelligence Committee voted 14-1 to review the agency’s detention and interrogation program under former President George W. Bush. It was intended to allow the Senate to review the program without turning over millions of pages of operational cables, emails, memos and other documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Hart Building office.
Feinstein said the network was supposed to be restricted to Senate staff and CIA information technology personnel, who were prohibited from sharing information with other CIA personnel.
She says CIA staff removed more than 900 pages of documentary evidence from the Senate investigators’ segregated network in February and May of 2010 without the approval of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
She says CIA officials also removed from the supposedly secure network an internal CIA document known as the internal Panetta review. It’s at the center of the dispute because Feinstein asserts it corroborates the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,300-page report. The CIA officially denied, minimized or ignored crucial sections of the Senate report in its June 27 response.
Feinstein says Brennan informed her and Chambliss on Jan. 15 that CIA had conducted a search of what was supposed to be the “stand-alone” network used by Senate investigators to determine if and how they had accessed the internal Brennan review.
She says these intrusions might have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the agency from engaging in domestic searches and surveillance.
The CIA’s countercharge:
The CIA claims Senate investigators improperly obtained the internal Panetta review and illegally transported a printed portion of it to a secure space in the Hart Senate Office Building.
Shortly after the Jan. 15 meeting, Feinstein was informed that Robert Eatinger, the acting general counsel of the CIA filed a criminal report against the Senate investigators with the Department of Justice.
The New York Times cited an unnamed government official in a March 8 report who claimed Senate investigators “had penetrated a firewall inside the CIA computer system that had been set up to separate the committee’s work from other agency digital files.”
Brennan, in a March 11 interview at the Council on Foreign Relations, denied Feinstein’s claim that his agency had illegally accessed the computers used by Senate investigators.
In a letter to CIA employees leaked to the media, Brennan asserted the agency has tried to “work as collaboratively as possible” with the Intelligence Committee and pledged to continue doing so.
The CIA might back off its criminal complaint against Senate investigators when Caroline Krass takes over as the agency’s new general counsel. The Senate approved her nomination Thursday in a 95-4 vote.
The role of the White House:
Feinstein approached then-White House Counsel Bob Bauer in May 2010 about the removal of 870 documents from the Senate investigators’ network in February 2010 and another 50 in mid-May.
Feinstein said Bauer “recognized the severity of the situation” and committed there “would be no further unauthorized access to the committee’s network or removal of access to CIA documents already provided to the committee.”
On May 17, 2010, the CIA’s director of congressional affairs apologized for the documents’ removal.
The Intelligence Committee has spent the past year sparring with the CIA over the conclusions of its report, which was completed in December 2012. It will now send it to the White House for declassification.
President Obama on Wednesday expressed support for a quick declassification timeline: "I am absolutely committed to declassifying that report as soon as the report is completed.”
Obama would declassify the report’s conclusions and 300-page summary, not the entire 6,300-page document. The internal Panetta review would not be included in the report.
Although Obama has backed a public accounting of the CIA’s interrogation and detention practices during the Bush administration, he has also been careful not to alienate an agency central to his strategy for fighting al Qaeda.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Thursday urged Obama to act swiftly.
“The sooner, the better,” he said.
Justice Department and CIA inspector general:
The Justice Department will investigate the conflicting accusations, a process that could take months.
Soon after Brennan informed Feinstein on Jan. 15 that CIA personnel had searched the Senate investigators’ computers, the agency’s inspector general, David Buckley, began his own investigation of the matter.
Buckley referred it to the Department of Justice as a possible criminal violation by CIA staff.
Feinstein on Tuesday described the inspector general’s review as “ongoing.”
Call for a special investigation:
Republicans question whether Attorney General Eric Holder will impartially investigate Feinstein’s claims and say President Obama and Congress should appoint a special investigator.
Chambliss has called into doubt the fact pattern laid out by Feinstein and proposed an independent investigation.
He said Wednesday that a forensic examination had not been performed on the computer network used by Senate investigators at the CIA facility. He argued the administration and Congress did not know the details of the alleged CIA search or how Senate investigators obtained the internal Panetta review.
Chambliss briefed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an influential voice on national security matters and one of Brennan’s chief critics, and other Republicans Wednesday.
“Myself, I don’t particularly trust the Justice Department,” said McCain, who suggested appointing an outside counsel trusted by both Democrats and Republicans, such as former FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and former Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) say a special investigative committee is not necessary.
“We’re about 14 steps away from that,” Reid said.