By Alexander Bolton - 03/13/14 06:00 AM EDT
CIA chief John Brennan is waging an aggressive counterattack against Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her explosive allegations, but he faces long odds of winning the battle.
Feinstein, who is highly regarded on Capitol Hill, is spending a lot of political capital to go after the CIA for allegedly spying on her committee staff.
Brennan has strongly denied Feinstein’s allegations, claiming “nothing could be further from the truth” while rolling his eyes on Tuesday.
Later in the day, Brennan penned a letter, which was leaked to the media, to CIA employees that defended the agency.
Feinstein is demanding an apology and urging the CIA to back off. Brennan won’t apologize and isn’t ceding any ground.
Many on the left don’t trust Brennan, a longtime spook, because of his ties to President George W. Bush’s controversial interrogation techniques. Brennan went through a rocky confirmation battle last year, drawing a marathon filibuster from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and 31 “no” votes from Republicans.
The White House has stood by Brennan, who has said he wants President Obama to judge whether he acted improperly.
“If I did something wrong, I will go to the president and I will explain to him exactly what I did, what the findings were, and he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go,” Brennan said.
Obama on Wednesday refused to jump into the fray.
“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 and that’s not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point,” Obama told reporters at an event about economic opportunity for women.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, however, gave Brennan political cover by calling Feinstein’s claims into question.
He warned his colleagues not to rush to judgment and suggested the appointment of a special investigator to review the competing accounts, something Democrats have rejected.
“Although people speak as though we know all the pertinent facts surrounding this matter, the truth is we do not,” he said on the Senate floor.
Other Democratic and Republican senators are siding with Feinstein.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called for a shake-up at the CIA if Feinstein’s claims that agency officials obstructed her investigation are validated.
“Dianne is somebody who’s not prone to say wild things,” he said Wednesday.
“If it is true, you would have to reorganize the CIA from top to bottom because the culture [allowed] this to happen, so you got to bring somebody new in to clean house,” he said.
Graham said he has not been a fan of Brennan because “he was involved in the waterboarding program,” calling the agency director “sometimes a bit unsavory.”
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said Congress needs to enact changes to increase oversight of the CIA.
“I think we need to put as much oversight in place as we can. I think this is an agency that really needs serious, serious oversight,” he added.
Udall added that Brennan should apologize to Congress because “what he’s done is unconstitutional.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a member of the Intelligence panel, said Wednesday that major changes are needed.
“As our 6,300 pages show, there’s a hell of a lot lying going on, to the White House, to everybody,” said Rockefeller, referring to a lengthy Intelligence Committee report on the interrogation and detention of suspected terrorists during Bush’s administration.
Senate Democrats on the panel have tried to declassify the report, but a clash with CIA officials, who dispute its findings and want to keep it secret, has slowed the effort.
Rockefeller served as chairman of the Intelligence Committee from January 2007 to January 2009.
After it surfaced in December 2007 that the CIA had destroyed videotapes of interrogations that included “enhanced” techniques such as waterboarding, Rockefeller assigned two staffers to review other CIA records.
That review led to a more comprehensive investigation in 2009 and ultimately to the 6,300-page report the committee approved in December 2012 but has yet to make public.
“There need to be an incredible number of reforms,” Rockefeller said. “That will catch us up to where we should have been 10 years ago.
“The substance of this thing is so deep and so wide and so unknown to the American people,” he said of the CIA’s interrogation and detention program, which underwent reform when Obama took office in 2009.
In an interview on CNN, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) called the situation “troubling” and said he has “immense respect” for Feinstein.
He added, “There’s something there. We need to get to the bottom of this soon …”
Feinstein on Tuesday expressed frustration with reports in the media that ostensibly came from the intelligence community. Throughout her speech on the Senate floor, she went through a number of assertions in news articles about the actions of her staff that she claimed were false.
The California Democrat alleged CIA officials spied on the work Senate staffers assembled on network drive that was supposed to be segregated from the CIA’s networks. She also accused CIA officials of removing documents from the computer network Senate staff used at a CIA-provided facility. One of the documents removed was “Internal Panetta Review,” which she says corroborated the Intelligence Committee’s findings.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said he would like to see reforms including a new mandate on the intelligence community to brief Congress more broadly on its activities. The CIA and other agencies make most of their briefings to the Senate and House intelligence panels, which are not allowed to share the information.
“The intelligence committee is a closed group, so what they share in that group is kept in that group. Why the CIA feels they cannot share information or be asked questions or not be forthright is a problem,” said Begich.
Former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who served on the Intelligence panel, said Feinstein’s reputation lends weight to her allegations.
“I know Dianne. I respect her very much,” he said. “If they don’t answer some of her questions, there will be a lot of concern.”