WASHINGTON — A festering conflict between the CIA and its congressional overseers broke into the open Tuesday when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, denounced the agency, accusing it of withholding information and trying to intimidate committee staff members investigating the detention program that began after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Describing what she called a "defining moment" for the oversight of U.S. spy agencies, Feinstein said the CIA had removed documents from computers used by committee staff members working on a report on the detention program, searched the computers after the panel completed its report, and referred a criminal case to the Justice Department to try to thwart the inquiry.
The 6,300-page report has been at the center of a bitter dispute between the committee and the CIA, which says it contains many inaccuracies that it wants corrected before it is released.
Feinstein said the internal review bolstered the conclusions of the committee's still-classified report on the detention program, which President Barack Obama officially ended in January 2009 after sharply criticizing it during the 2008 presidential campaign.
For an intelligence community already buffeted by controversies over electronic surveillance and armed drone strikes, the rupture with Feinstein, one of its closest congressional allies, could have broad ramifications for the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus.
"Feinstein has always pushed the agency in private and defended it in public," said Amy Zegart, who studies intelligence issues at Stanford University. "Now she is skewering the CIA in public. This is a whole new world for the CIA."
Feinstein took to the Senate floor on Tuesday morning to say the agency's actions had breached constitutional provisions for the separation of powers and "were a potential effort to intimidate."
Hours later, CIA director John Brennan forcefully denied Feinstein's assertions that the agency had carried out a broad effort to spy on the committee's work.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Brennan said in response to questions during an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.