Feinstein excoriates CIA for spying on Senate committee

Sen. Dianne Feinstein blasts CIA chief John Brennan for allegedly spying on Senate Intelligence Committee computers, whom Edward Snowden then accused of hypocrisy.

Seth Rosenblatt
Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
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US Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) walks off the Senate floor after accusing the CIA of spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee on March 11, 2014. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Senator Dianne Feinstein is not a fan of government surveillance, at least when it's directed at the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The California senator, who has been the chair of the committee since 2009, said on Tuesday that the Central Intelligence Agency improperly monitored an independent computer network created for Congress to investigate allegations of torture and abuse in a detention and interrogation program from the George W. Bush administration.

Feinstein went public with the allegations after the CIA ignored letters from her on January 17 and January 23 that demanded an explanation and an apology.

She said in a statement on the Senate floorthat she although she had been "trying to resolve this dispute in a discreet and respectful way," she had "grave concerns that the CIA's search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the US Constitution."

She added that the CIA's inspector general, David Buckley, sent the dispute to the Justice Department, "given the possibility of a criminal violation by CIA personnel."

CIA Director John Brennan denied the accusation in a statement from last week.

"I am deeply dismayed that some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts," he said. "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."

"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," he said.

Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also voiced concern over the alleged CIA spying.

"In addition to the grave implications for the Constitutional separation of powers, I am extremely troubled that the CIA leadership has neither responded to specific questions about this search nor even acknowledged that it was inappropriate," said Wyden in a statement. "This is simply not acceptable in a democracy."

Edward Snowden appearing live via Google Hangouts video at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin on Monday, in his first extended public comments since leaking NSA documents last year. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

It's worth noting that Feinstein has been a stalwart supporter of government surveillance programs. Feinstein condemned Edward Snowden last June after he leaked National Security Agency documents to the press, saying that he had committed "an act of treason."

Following his first extended public comments during a video conference at yesterday's South by Southwest festival, the former NSA contractor all but called Feinstein a hypocrite.

"[S]uddenly it's a scandal when a politician finds out" that they've been spied on, Snowden said in a statement to NBC News.

He called Feinstein's CIA accusations an example of the "Merkel Effect," a reference to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's angry reaction to her discovery that the US was spying on her, apparently without concern that her fellow countrymen were also the target of widespread surveillance.

Feinstein's office did not return a request for comment on whether her opinion of Snowden had changed in light of her allegations against the CIA.