Key Senator Blasts CIA for Coverups, Intimidation to Halt Probe into Agency's 'Un-American and Brutal' Torture Prgrams

In a bombshell statement, Dianne Feinstein accused the CIA of potentially violating the US constitution and of criminal activity.

The chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, on Tuesday accused the Central Intelligence Agency of a catalogue of cover-ups, intimidation and smears aimed at investigators probing its role in an “un-American and brutal” programme of post-9/11 detention and interrogation.

In a bombshell statement on the floor of the US Senate, Feinstein, normally an administration loyalist, accused the CIA of potentially violating the US constitution and of criminal activity in its attempts to obstruct her committee’s investigations into the agency’s use of torture. She described the crisis as a “defining moment” for political oversight of the US intelligence service.

Her unprecedented public assault on the CIA represented an intensification of the row between the committee and the agency over a still-secret report on the torture of terrorist suspects after 9/11. Resolution of the crisis, Feinstein suggested, may come this week at the White House.

Feinstein, who said she was making her statement “reluctantly”, confirmed recent reports that CIA officials had monitored computer networks used by Senate staff investigators. Going further than previously, she referred openly to recent attempts by the CIA to remove documents from the network detailing evidence of torture that would incriminate intelligence officers.

She also alleged that anonymous CIA officials were effectively conducting a smear campaign in the media to discredit and “intimidate” Senate staff by suggesting they had hacked into the agency’s computers to obtain a separate, critical internal report on the detention and interrogation programme.

Staff working on the Senate investigation have been reported to the Department of Justice for possible criminal charges by a lawyer at the CIA who himself features heavily in the alleged interrogation abuses. The CIA’s inspector general has another inquiry open into the issue.

Feinstein said this was a possible attempt at “intimidation” and revealed that CIA officials had also been reported to the Department of Justice for alleged violations of the fourth amendment and laws preventing them from domestic spying.

“This is a defining moment for the oversight role of our intelligence committee ... and whether we can be thwarted by those we oversee,” said Feinstein in a special address on the floor of the the US Senate.

“There is no legitimate reason to allege to the Justice Department that Senate staff may have committed a crime... this is plainly an attempt to intimidate these staff and I am not taking it lightly.”

Last week, CIA director John Brennan, a former White House counterterrorism aide to President Obama, issued a rare scathing public statement on the deepening crisis, suggesting that unspecified “wrongdoing” had occurred in “either the executive branch or legislative branch.”

Brennan, who initially withdrew from consideration as CIA director in 2008 out of allegations he did not consider torture to be a serious offence, said last week he was “deeply dismayed that some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts.”

The committee’s report is still classified, and several of its conclusions are sharply contested by the CIA.

Feinstein said that she would immediately appeal to the White House to declassify the report’s major findings. The White House, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, is formally on record as supporting the declassification, which the president has the power to order.

The CIA had no immediate comment on Feinstein’s remarks. Brennan was scheduled to give a speech reflecting on the first year of his tenure later on Tuesday morning.

Patrick Leahy, chairman of the senate judiciary committee and the longest serving US senator, described Feinstein’s speech at the most important he had witnessed in his time in Congress.

“I cannot think of any speech by any member of any party as important as the one the senator from California just gave,” Leahy said.

Feinstein described repeated attempts by the CIA to frustrate the work of Senate investigators, including providing the committee staff with a “document dump” of millions of non-indexed pages, requiring years of work to sort through – a necessity, Feinstein said, after former senior CIA official Jose Rodriguez destroyed nearly 100 videotapes showing brutal interrogations of detainees in CIA custody.

“We are not going to stop our investigation and have sent our report to the president in the hope it can be declassified and published for the American people to see,” Feinstein said on the Senate floor.

She said the goal of declassifying the report, exposing the “horrible details of a CIA programme that never, never should have existed,” was to prevent torture from ever again becoming American policy.

Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International called on the White House to publish the committee’s report. “President Obama, who has claimed to have the most transparent administration in history, should move immediately to declassify and release the report. Otherwise, the legacy of torture he inherited will become his own,” he said.

Spencer Ackerman writes for The Guardian from Washington, DC.