By Jeremy Herb - 03/05/14 06:11 PM EST
Senators on Wednesday expressed alarm at explosive allegations that the CIA might have spied on their computers to keep tabs on their controversial review of Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” techniques.
“I’m assuming that’s it’s not true, but if it is true, it should be World War III in terms of Congress standing up for itself against the CIA, ” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told The Hill.
Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) confirmed Wednesday that the CIA inspector general was investigating accusations that the covert agency had peered into the panel’s computers. But she didn’t comment on reports that the investigator has referred the matter to the Justice Department.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), an ex officio member of the Intelligence panel, said the charge of spying is “extremely serious.”
“There are laws against intruding and tampering, hacking into, accessing computers without permission. And that law applies to everybody,” he said.
Brennan in a statement said he was "dismayed" by the “spurious allegations,” which he said were "wholly unsupported by the facts."
His statement was released Wednesday evening as McClatchy reported that the computer spying was allegedly discovered when the CIA confronted the Senate Intelligence panel about documents removed from the agency’s headquarters.
"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 said.
“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."
The allegations escalated a long-simmering feud between Democrats on the Intelligence panel and the CIA over the committee’s classified interrogation report, which provides an exhaustive look at the treatment of detainees in the years after Sept. 11.
Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.) and two other Democrats on the Intelligence panel have criticized the CIA and its director, John Brennan, for blocking their efforts to declassify the 6,300-page investigation.
“The CIA tried to intimidate the Intelligence Committee, plain and simple,” Udall said. “I’m going to keep fighting like hell to make sure the CIA never dodges congressional oversight again.”
Senators have said their review, which was completed in December 2012, is harshly critical of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, concluding that they were ineffective and did not contribute to the capture of Osama bin Laden.
Udall and other Democrats say the report needs to be released because it will "set the record straight" about the use of techniques that critics say amount to torture.
While Democrats on the panel backed the report’s findings, most of the Intelligence Committee Republicans dissented.
The CIA has objected to some of the report’s conclusions as well, though Udall says its internal review contradicts the agency’s public statements.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who has joined Udall in pressing for the release of the report, said the allegations about CIA spying show the lengths that the agency will go to protect itself.
“I think it’s been pretty clear that the CIA will do just about anything to make sure that this detention and interrogation report doesn’t come out,” Heinrich told The Hill.
Other Republicans on the Intelligence panel said the spying charges should be investigated, but they expressed concerns about the leak of the inspector general investigation.
“I have no comment. You should talk to those folks that are giving away classified information and get their opinion,” Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said when asked about the alleged intrusions.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) appeared to allude to the CIA snooping at an Intelligence Committee hearing last month when he asked Brennan whether the Computer Crimes and Abuse Act applied to the agency.
Wyden said Wednesday that Brennan responded in a letter the law did apply.
“The Act, however, expressly ‘does not prohibit any lawfully authorized investigative, protective, or intelligence activity … of an intelligence agency of the United States,’ ” Brennan wrote in the letter that Wyden released.
McClatchy news service reported that the Intelligence Committee determined earlier this year the CIA had monitored computers it provided to the panel to review top-secret reports, cables and other documents.
It’s still unclear whether the alleged monitoring would have violated the law.
Udall sent a letter to President Obama on Tuesday calling for declassification of the committee’s report, where he alleged the CIA’s “unprecedented action against the committee” was tied to agency's internal review of the interrogation policies.
Udall first raised issues with the internal review of the interrogation techniques at the confirmation hearing of Caroline Krass's nomination as CIA general counsel, which took place in December.
He said that the review, conducted under former CIA Director Leon Panetta, corroborated the findings of the Senate Intelligence report and contradicted the public statements from the agency.
Udall has placed a procedural hold on Krass’s nomination and told reporters Wednesday that it would remain in place until the CIA meets his requests for more information about the internal review.
White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on the spying allegations Wednesday, referring questions to the CIA and Department of Justice.
Carney said that "as a general matter," the White House was in touch with the Intelligence Committee.
"For some time, the White House has made clear to the chairmen of the Senate Select committee on intelligence that the summary and conclusions of the final RDI report should be declassified with any redactions necessary to protect national security," he said.
Heinrich said he hoped the CIA intrusions, if confirmed, would push the White House to get involved in the dispute between the agency and the committee over the report.
“It would be easy for me to get very upset about these allegations, but I think we need to keep our eye on that ball, because that is a really important historical issue, and people need to understand who made what decisions and why,” he said.
— This story was updated at 7:18 p.m. with a statement from the CIA.