Secret reports. Vanishing documents. Whispers of crime, intimidation and cover-up.
A quarrel between the CIA and the Senate that's been rumbling beneath the surface for years burst into full view Tuesday when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., laid it all out in eye-popping detail on the Senate floor, and the CIA quickly pushed back.
Each side has suggested improper meddling by the other, and raised questions about criminal activity.
Such intrigue at the highest levels of government -- laid out in public, no less -- raises big constitutional questions spanning two presidencies and has revived old questions about harsh CIA interrogation of suspects after the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001.
A look at the unfolding dispute:
HOW IT STARTED: It begins with questions of torture. The Senate Intelligence Committee in 2009 began a wide-ranging investigation into CIA interrogation techniques during the Bush administration, including waterboarding of terrorism suspects at secret overseas prisons. The resulting 6,300-page report, completed in 2012, has never been publicly released. The current dispute centers on whether the CIA impeded the Senate's investigation, and whether the Senate improperly obtained or handled CIA documents along the way.
THE DOCUMENT DUMP: The CIA responded to the Senate investigation with a giant "document dump," to use the words of Feinstein, who chairs the committee. Under a carefully negotiated agreement, the agency handed over 6.2 million pages of unindexed material to Senate investigators, who plowed through it on CIA-supplied computers set up at a secure site in northern Virginia. The ground rules were supposed to keep the CIA from meddling in the Senate's investigation and its computer files, and to keep Senate investigators from seeing things they shouldn't.
A VANISHING ACT: As they plowed through the CIA papers, Senate investigators noticed that hundreds of pages of documents they had once been able to access on the computers had inexplicably vanished. After Feinstein protested, the CIA promised in 2010 it wouldn't remove any more documents or meddle in the investigators' work. The CIA even apologized. That was supposed to fix the problem.
A VANISHING ACT, PART II: Among the documents that Senate investigators reviewed later in 2010 were draft versions of a key internal CIA paper Feinstein called the "internal Panetta review" (named for former CIA Director Leon Panetta.) This document is a big deal because it acknowledged "significant CIA wrongdoing," according to Feinstein. There's a mystery here: Senators aren't sure if this document was provided on purpose by the CIA, accidentally by the CIA, or arrived courtesy of a CIA whistleblower. At some point in 2010, most versions of the Panetta document vanished from the computers the Senate investigators were using.
LOOK WHO'S HACKING: Questions have swirled about how Senate investigators got hold of the Panetta documents, and whether they should have immediately given them back, because they were marked "deliberative" and "privileged" material. "To be clear," Feinstein said Tuesday, "the committee staff did not hack into CIA computers to obtain these documents." She says they were part of that big document dump.
A DISCONNECT. When the Senate committee completed its big report in December 2012, it gave the CIA a chance to respond to the findings. The agency agreed with some parts but disagreed with other important points. This is where the importance of the Panetta review becomes clear. According to Feinstein, some of the same findings that the agency disputed in its response to the report had been agreed with by the agency in the Panetta document. "This is puzzling," Feinstein said. "How can the CIA's official response to our study stand factually in conflict with its own internal review?"
LOOK WHO'S HACKING, PART II: Feinstein in 2014 accuses the CIA of improperly spying on the Senate. The CIA, anxious about the Panetta document, informs Feinstein that it searched the CIA-provided computers used by the Senate investigators. The CIA search even poked into the Senate committee's "stand-alone computer system" that was to be separate from the CIA network. Feinstein cries foul, but Brennan's response is unrepentant and adamant: "The CIA was in no way spying" on the committee or the Senate, he said Tuesday. He added: "We weren't trying to block anything."
SORTING IT ALL OUT: How to get to the bottom of this? The Justice Department is being asked to investigate potential wrongdoing on both sides of the equation. The CIA's inspector general sent over allegations of possible criminal violations by CIA personnel. And the CIA's acting general counsel sent over a report raising questions about the committee staff's actions. Feinstein calls that "a potential effort to intimidate this staff."
WHAT ABOUT THE WHITE HOUSE? It's trying not to take sides, pointing to the potential investigations. But spokesman Jay Carney says that if something fishy was going on, "we would want to get to the bottom of it."
ABOUT THAT REPORT. Feinstein's committee is still working on final updates and revisions to the report, and hoping to get a declassified version released to the public. As in the beginning, it all comes back to questions about torture. Feinstein's goal, she says: "To ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted."
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