The furor over the CIA’s alleged unauthorized searches of Senate committee computers hasn’t had much of a political impact.
But small signs emerged Thursday that the issue could become part of the 2014 campaign debate.
The GOP has railed for months about big, intrusive government. They’ve cited the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups. Some leading Republicans also have complained that the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records shows a federal government out of control.
Republicans, though, also have to be careful with the CIA-Senate Intelligence Committee issue; at the center of the controversy is a committee investigation of controversial interrogation tactics of suspected terrorists that were used under the administration of former President George W. Bush, a Republican.
While saying that “we need to get to the bottom of this,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, noted, “I think people are rightfully concerned about the role of government in their lives. But I think there’s so much misinformation out there as well it would be helpful if we sort of proceeded with the issues.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said lawmakers should vigorously challenge the CIA if it turns out the spy agency was hacking into the computers used by Senate staffers.
“This technology is not for them to protect themselves,” Graham said. “This technology is for them to protect the public.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., charged this week in a unexpectedly aggressive Senate floor speech that the CIA may have broken the law by secretly infiltrating computers used by her staff to assemble a scathing report on the spy agency’s secret prisons and controversial interrogation techniques that have been equated with torture.
The CIA detention and interrogation program is now defunct, but Democrats like Feinstein and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., have been publicly critical about the alleged CIA hacking of Senate computers.
In an election year, nearly every issue is fair game for political sniping, and the CIA-intelligence panel flareup could end up becoming one among many. Republicans need a net gain of six seats this year to win control of the Senate, and Udall is one of their top targets.
The first-term Colorado senator publicly revealed the existence of internal CIA documents that lawmakers say conflict with answers the spy agency gave the committee about its interrogation program. Udall then wrote in a March 4 letter to President Barack Obama that the CIA has taken “unprecedented action” against the intelligence committee, apparently referring to the alleged computer surveillance.
Some Republicans have been wary of Udall’s public discussion of such a sensitive topic. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., asked if Udall went too far, said, “That’s for Sen. Udall to figure out.”
On Thursday, the Republicans’ Senate campaign committee entered the fray.
“Mark Udall has had a rough several months on many fronts and this is one more example,” said Brook Hougesen, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Udall’s campaign on Thursday defended his record, saying that he “has consistently and strongly stood up to protect our Constitution, our liberties and our right to be left alone,” according to spokesman Chris Harris.
Udall said he’s holding the CIA accountable for its “misguided detention and interrogation program.” He did agree to release his hold on the nomination of Caroline Krass to be the CIA’s general counsel, which was approved Thursday, saying the acting general counsel, Robert Eatinger, had tried to intimidate Senate investigators. Udall also said that Eatinger has a conflict of interest because he is cited more than 1,600 times in the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Bush-era detention and interrogation program.
Democrats also began to point fingers at the other side.
All of the documents come from the Bush administration and have “nothing to do” with the Obama administration, but are “matters that need to be reviewed in light of long-recognized executive prerogatives and confidentiality interests,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Some Republicans were not pleased that Feinstein went public earlier this week with her concerns.
“I was very surprised when she took to the floor given the discussions that we had been having in private,” said Collins, an intelligence committee member.
But it was a sign of how conflicted senators are about this matter and how the political fallout _ if any _ remains unclear that many Republicans refused to criticize her.
“She is not somebody that is reactionary or tries to hyperinflate for political purposes,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “So I’m looking at this very carefully and I think along with many of my colleagues trying to really figure out what has gone on here.”
The CIA’s inspector general and the Department of Justice are reportedly looking into the matter.
“I’m not sure the Department of Justice is the right entity because it’s the executive branch investigating itself almost,” Graham said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called for “an investigation conducted by people who are viewed as objective.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, hinted during comments on the floor Wednesday night that he might agree.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said such a probe is several steps away, if it happens at all. Most senators also wanted more time to gauge any political impact.
As the Senate prepared to leave the capital for a weeklong recess, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., a former Intelligence Committee chairman, said, “I need to call some folks I trust in the intelligence community.”
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.