The top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee pushed back Wednesday against accusations that the CIA snooped through congressional computers, saying that the facts are still too murky to draw any firm conclusions and a special investigator may have to be enlisted to sort it all out.
“Although people speak as though we know all the pertinent facts surrounding this matter, the truth is, we do not,” said Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the committee’s vice chairman.
A day earlier, committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein went to the Senate floor to level stunning allegations that the CIA had illegally broken into committee computers and deleted documents in the possession of Congress, which the California Democrat said could have grave constitutional implications.
The CIA, in its turn, has filed an official complaint with the Justice Department accusing Senate staffers of having stolen the key CIA document in the first place.
For his part, CIA Director John O. Brennan denied hacking into Senate computers but said he would await an internal investigation by his agency’s inspector general.
The back-and-forth has turned into a major constitutional battle in Washington, with GOP House Speaker John A. Boehner saying he was concerned by the reports but that he, too, will wait for an independent investigation.
President Obama has also declined to comment on the clash between a top Senate Democrat and his own CIA.
“With respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA, John Brennan has referred them to the appropriate authorities and they are looking into it,” the president said. “That’s not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point.”
The source of the dispute is a long-running investigation by Mrs. Feinstein and her committee into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program for the war on terror under President George W. Bush. She said Tuesday that the details she has learned show the agency’s behavior was far worse than has been acknowledged.
She said one key document, known as the “Panetta review,” was an internal CIA report that came to many conclusions critical of the CIA — conclusions her own 6,300-page report has reached. She said the CIA publicly disputes those conclusions, but the Panetta review undercuts the agency’s arguments.
That document was part of millions of pages turned over to committee staffers, but that was subsequently deleted from a Senate computer system after the CIA “searched” it, in violation of agreements and possibly of the Constitution, Mrs. Feinstein said.
Democratic leaders rallied behind Mrs. Feinstein this week, saying they would defend the Senate against executive branch encroachment.
Republicans said they were troubled by the accusations and said if true, the CIA would have to face repercussions.
But Mr. Chambliss said it’s too early to reach any conclusions. He also said he regretted that such a secret and sensitive topic was now being debated openly on the floor of the Senate.
“Both parties have made allegations against one another, and even speculated as to each other’s actions, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions that must be addressed,” he said.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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