US Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has issued a rare public rebuke to the CIA after the agency hacked into a Senate committee's computers to remove documents describing agents' torture enhanced interrogation of terrorist suspects.
"I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate. I have received neither," she said.
"Besides the constitutional implications, the CIA’s search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance."
Feinstein is head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is supposed to scrutinize America's intelligence agencies, and has been a strong supporter of the NSA – even sponsoring a bill to codify into law the mass surveillance techniques used by that agency. But it seems when such intrusion happens to her, it's a different matter.
Back in 2006, her committee started looking into the CIA's rendition and interrogation program that began in 2002. At some point, agents destroyed video tapes of the interrogation of terrorist suspects, but the then-head of the CIA said this wasn't a problem, since agency documents would give "a more than adequate representation" of what went on.
Then in 2009, the agency handed over 6.2 million unsorted documents to the committee's investigators to study. For security reasons, these were held on an air-gapped network in a secure facility, and Senate staffers began the process of going through them, but the amount of data was so immense they asked the CIA for a search tool to go through them.
This was provided, and it was used to find a number of interesting reports from an internal CIA review that showed "significant CIA wrongdoing," Feinstein said.
But then some of the documents started to disappear form the network.
rm -rf'd the damning dossier?
In early 2010 Senate staffers found 870 pages of documents were removed from the database, with another 50 taken out in May. When questioned, the CIA said the documents must have been deleted by IT contractors running the system, then claimed the White House had insisted they be removed, before admitting removing the documents and apologizing to the committee.
The committee's report of the CIA's detention and interrogation program was finished last year, and was sent to the White House and the CIA for review. The report used the internal CIA review documents after redacting sensitive information such as the names of CIA staff involved in the program.
Then on January 15 Feinstein said CIA director John Brennan called an emergency meeting and told her that his agents had rifled through the computers of congressional staff for documents relating to its internal review of the interrogations. Meanwhile stories were leaked to the press claiming that staffers had hacked CIA computers to get the incriminating documents.
Feinstein denied this latter claim, pointing out the documents used were those provided by the CIA itself. She vowed to press on and publish the full report as soon as possible, and called the CIA's actions "a defining moment for the oversight of our Intelligence Community."
In an interview on Tuesday the CIA director denied that his agency had done anything wrong.
"We weren't trying to block anything," Brennan said. "The matter is being dealt with in an appropriate way, being look at by the right authorities, and the facts will come out. Let me assure you the CIA was in no way spying on [the committee] or the Senate."
Given Feinstein's record, or rather lack of one, in protecting members of the general public from government surveillance, her outraged statement drew wry comment from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
"It's clear the CIA was trying to play 'keep away' with documents relevant to an investigation by their overseers in Congress, and that's a serious constitutional concern," he said in a statement to NBC News.
"But it's equally if not more concerning that we're seeing another 'Merkel Effect,' where an elected official does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies, but suddenly it's a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them." ®