By Alexander Bolton - 03/11/14 08:33 PM EDT
President Obama is caught in the middle of an increasingly bitter feud between the Central Intelligence Agency and Democratic allies on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) stunning accusation that the CIA spied on her panel plunged the president into a controversy over the separation of powers that threatens to become a major headache for his administration.
Democrats are pushing to release their investigation into interrogation techniques used during the George W. Bush administration and have been fighting for months with the CIA over declassifying its contents.
Obama backs releasing the interrogation report but has made clear he wants to move past the controversy over the Bush-era interrogations.
Now Senate Democrats are demanding that Brennan apologize for what Feinstein alleges is the obstruction and intimidation of her committee’s work. Brennan on Tuesday rejected Feinstein’s allegations as false.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the Senate’s most senior Democrat, both backed Feinstein on Tuesday.
Asked if Brennan should apologize, Reid said, “I support Dianne Feinstein, and the answer is yes.”
Attorney General Eric Holder must decide how to handle conflicting complaints from Feinstein and the CIA.
Feinstein on Tuesday charged the agency may have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and an executive order prohibiting domestic searches and surveillance by searching computers that contained records of the committee’s internal deliberations.
The CIA’s acting general counsel has filed a countervailing report with the Justice Department accusing Intelligence Committee staff of removing a classified document from the agency without permission. Feinstein cited the general counsel’s complaint in her floor speech.
If Obama sides with Feinstein, Republicans could accuse him of undermining the intelligence community.
Republican senators, with the notable exception of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), declined to support Feinstein in her battle with the CIA.
Adding to the tension, only one Republican on the Intelligence Committee — former Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) — endorsed the findings of the interrogation report, which Democrats say will reveal that the CIA’s techniques were ineffective and far harsher than previously known.
“We have some disagreements as to what the actual facts are,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Select Committee on Intelligence.
Chambliss said “improving the relationship” between his committee and the CIA “is not going to happen if we throw rocks at each other.”
Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), the second-most senior Republican on the panel, said, “I personally don’t believe anything that goes on in the Intelligence Committee should ever be discussed publicly.”
But there is growing sentiment among Democrats that Obama needs to rein in his intelligence agencies.
“To me this goes precisely to the question of whether Congress can effectively oversee the modern intelligence apparatus,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a senior member of the Intelligence panel.
Wyden noted that a CIA official acknowledged at a recent public hearing that the agency was subject to the Computer Fraud Act.
“We’ve got to be able to independently do oversight and find the facts and, as Sen. Feinstein laid out this morning, this raises a very troubling set of questions with respect to separation of powers,” he said.
Adding to the pressure, groups on the left are demanding Obama step in and ensure that the interrogation report is released.
“After so many years of Congress being unable or unwilling to assert its authority over the CIA, Sen. Feinstein today began to reclaim the authority of Congress as a check on the executive branch,” said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Public release of the Senate torture report will be the next step to reining in a CIA that has tortured, destroyed evidence, spied on Congress, and lied to the American people.”
McCain, Obama’s adversary in the 2008 presidential election, could give the president some political cover to intervene. He said there should be “repercussions” if Feinstein’s allegations are proved correct.
“It is very disturbing and we need a thorough and complete investigation, and I’m trying to figure out who would be doing it because there’s allegations of bias on both sides,” he said.
McCain, a longtime critic of enhanced interrogation tactics such as waterboarding, said, “We may need some kind of independent investigation.”
Graham, McCain’s ally, said if the spying allegations are true, “heads should roll at the CIA.”
Reid, however, said it’s too early to talk about setting up a special committee to investigate Feinstein’s claims.
“We’re about 14 steps away from that,” he said.