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White House told of CIA move against Senate aides

March 12, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — The CIA’s director and its top lawyer told White House attorneys in advance about their plans to file an official criminal complaint accusing Senate Intelligence Committee aides of improperly obtaining secret agency documents, the White House confirmed Wednesday.

Lawyers in the White House counsel’s office did not approve the CIA’s move to refer its complaint to the Justice Department or provide any advice to the agency, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said.

“There was no comment, there was no weighing in, there was no judgment,” Carney said, citing protocol to not interfere in the ongoing inquiries into the matter by the FBI and the CIA’s inspector general.

The public controversy erupted on Wednesday when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the intelligence panel, accused the CIA of snooping in a computer network it had set up for committee aides conducting an investigation, possibly violating the Constitution as well as federal law.

She also disclosed that a top CIA lawyer had filed papers with the Justice Department saying committee personnel may have violated the law by possessing certain agency documents.

The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee avoided taking sides in the dispute between Feinstein and the spy agency.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss said in a brief speech on the Senate floor he does not know all the facts, and a special investigator may be needed to find out what happened. He said pointedly that Republican staff aides were not involved in the activities at the heart of the dispute.

Carney did not say whether President Barack Obama was directly aware of the decision. “The president has been aware in general about the protocols and the discussions and occasional disputes involved,” he said.

Obama avoided commenting on his involvement in the dispute.

Feinstein’s committee has been investigating the CIA’s now-closed “black site” overseas prison system and harsh interrogation of prisoners. The committee’s long-overdue report has been hurt by its inability to fully review a classified CIA report on the George W. Bush-era secret interrogations, while CIA officials have questioned whether Senate investigators breached a classified computer system in their efforts to press for the material.

A spokesman for James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said Wednesday that Clapper has been “fully aware of the circumstances related to this matter and is in regular contact with (CIA Director John) Brennan.” The DNI spokesman, Shawn Turner, did not say whether Clapper was told in advance of the CIA’s plans to file its complaint to Justice or whether he approved of the decision.

Feinstein contends CIA officials monitored Senate aides as they worked on their report, raising concerns of a clash between the legislative and executive branch.

Brennan said the CIA was “not in any way, shape or form trying to thwart this report’s progression.”

Obama said he was “absolutely committed” to declassifying the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report.

When Obama became president in 2009, he signed an executive order closing the CIA’s overseas prisons and ending harsh interrogations of al-Qaida prisoners. He did not order an official investigation into the secret programs overseen by the Bush administration, concerned that could plunge morale among intelligence agencies.

Former CIA Director Leon Panetta later ordered a secret review of the harsh interrogation program. That’s what Feinstein and other committee Democrats have tried to review for the committee’s own report.

Senate Republicans have not joined Feinstein in backing the investigation. But House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, said Wednesday he is concerned about the allegations of CIA snooping into computer files used by the Senate investigators.

He said he is awaiting the internal report by the CIA’s inspector general.

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Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper, Donna Cassata and Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.

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