The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee torched the CIA in a floor speech Tuesday, charging the agency with spying on her committee's computers in a possibly illegal search she said has been referred to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution.
The on-the-record allegations by Sen. Dianne Feinstein shook the Senate, with lawmakers in both parties warning of serious fallout if proved true. And her speech put the Department of Justice and the White House in an awkward spot between CIA Director John O. Brennan, who later denied the allegation of spying, and Feinstein, who has been a strong backer of the intelligence community generally and of President Barack Obama.
During her speech, the California Democrat said she learned from Brennan in a Jan. 15 meeting that the CIA improperly searched committee computer files as the committee neared the end of its yearslong investigation of the CIA's interrogation and detainee practices, confirming several media reports. She said the incident has been referred to the Department of Justice. But Feinstein was also riled by a separate referral by the CIA to Justice suggesting that committee staff had improperly received classified information.
The California Democrat called that referral "a potential effort to intimidate this staff" and called the matter "a defining moment" for whether the Congress would be able to provide oversight of the intelligence community.
"Without prior notification or approval, CIA personnel had conducted a search ' that was John Brennan's word ' of the committee computers at the offsite facility," she said. "This search was not only of documents provided by the committee by the CIA but also a search of the stand-alone and walled-off committee network drive containing the committee's own internal work product and communications."
The CIA, it seems, was trying to figure out whether committee staff had managed to gain access to an internal review of CIA interrogation methods named after former CIA Director Leon E. Panetta.
"The CIA did not ask the committee or its staff if the committee had access to the internal review or how we obtained it. Instead, the CIA just went and searched the committee's computers," Feinstein said. "' In place of asking any questions, the CIA's unauthorized search of the committee computers was followed by an allegation, which we now have seen repeated anonymously in the press, that the committee staff had somehow obtained the document through unauthorized or criminal means."
Feinstein said her staff had handled the Panetta review properly and had received it from the CIA itself.
Feinstein had been quiet about previous news reports but said Tuesday that was no longer possible. She said the CIA has not answered repeated questions from the committee.
"I have grave concerns that the CIA's search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, including the speech and debate," she said.
Brennan strenuously denied allegations of hacking in an interview with NBC News.
"We weren't trying to block anything, and the matter is being dealt with in the appropriate way, being looked at by the right authorities, and the facts will come out," Brennan said. "But let me assure you that [the] CIA in no way was spying on the SSCI or the Senate. We greatly respect the separation of powers between the executive branch and the legislative branch, and we're going to do everything possible to work with the committee in the future on its report."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations while the matter is under review, but offered a generic boost for Brennan.
"The president has great confidence in John Brennan," he said, adding that the White House takes whatever Feinstein says "seriously."
Feinstein seemed to have backing on both sides of the aisle, although Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee who Feinstein said attended the January meeting, would not immediately comment.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., offered a stark warning of the consequences if what she suggested proves true.
"This is Richard Nixon stuff. This is dangerous to the democracy," Graham said. "Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it's true.
"If it is, the legislative branch should declare war on the CIA," Graham added.
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has often disagreed with Feinstein over federal surveillance powers, was supportive Tuesday.
"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," Wyden said in a statement. "This is simply not acceptable in a democracy."
Texas Republican Ted Cruz said there shouldn't be a rush to judgment. But, he said, "for the executive branch to spy on and hack into the computers of the United States Senate, is an extraordinary violation of the respect that each constitutional branch owes the other."
Cruz connected the CIA search allegations to earlier cases of what conservatives in particular view as executive branch regulatory overreach, as well as an ongoing legal battle over recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board.
And Intelligence panel member Mark Udall, D-Colo., recently said the "CIA tried to intimidate" the panel.
Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., appeared on the floor shortly after Feinstein's lengthy speech to praise her comments, calling for all senators to stand behind her.
"If we do not stand up for ' the protection of the separation of powers and our ability to do oversight, especially when conduct has happened that is in all likelihood criminal by the part of a government agency, then what do we stand for?" Leahy asked. "We are supposed to be the conscience of the nation. The senator from California, Sen. Feinstein, has spoken to our conscience, every one of us, 100 senators. Men and women, both parties."
Leahy told reporters her speech was one of the best he's heard in his nearly 40 years in the Senate, "and one of the most important."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also praised Feinstein.
"I admire what she's done, what the committee's done, and especially her statement today. It was one of courage and conviction."
John Gramlich and Carolyn Phenicie contributed to this report.