WASHINGTON -- 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.
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"There was no comment, there was no weighing in, there was no judgment," Carney said, citing protocol not to 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.
Carney made his comments at the White House as the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee avoided taking sides in the dispute between Feinstein, D-Calif., and the spy agency.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia 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 GOP 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 at the end of a meeting Wednesday with female Democratic lawmakers on women's economic issues. He added that "with respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA, (CIA Director) John Brennan has referred them to the appropriate authorities. And they are looking into it. And that's not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to weigh into at this point."
Carney's confirmation of the White House's awareness of the CIA's decision deepens the complicated chronology that led the committee head to denounce the CIA and top officials Tuesday for allegedly trying to intimidate and monitor congressional overseers.
Feinstein's committee has been investigating the CIA's now-shuttered "black site" overseas prison system and harsh interrogation of prisoners. The committee's long-overdue report has been stymied 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.
Carney said Brennan and the acting general counsel, Robert Eatinger, informed White House officials about the decision to make a referral to the Justice Department. Carney would not say when the notification occurred.
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 Director 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.
"Commenting on this issue while it is under review by the Justice Department would be inappropriate for someone in his position," Turner said.
Feinstein castigated Eatinger, though not by name, and characterized the move as "a potential effort to intimidate this staff, and I am not taking it lightly."
She 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. "I would urge them to go ahead and complete the report, send it to us," Obama said. "We will declassify those findings so that the American people can understand what happened in the past, and that can help guide us as we move forward."
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, R-Ohio, 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.
Feinstein said the CIA's actions appeared designed to hamper her committee's investigation and may have violated the Constitution and federal law.
So far, the dispute has brought Feinstein and other senators into conflict with the CIA, although it clearly has the potential to expand.
Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said it has been a matter that Feinstein and Brennan were working out. "I didn't think it was my place to do that," said Rogers, R-Mich. "Clearly, things have changed."
Whatever their partisan or policy differences, lawmakers generally are united when it comes to defending Congress' role as overseer of the executive branch.
Brennan said agency personnel "believe strongly in the necessity of effective, strong and bipartisan congressional oversight."
But bipartisanship seemed to erode in the wake of Feinstein's speech on the Senate floor. She contended that the CIA's computer system search possibly violated the Constitution as well as federal law and an executive order that prohibits the agency from conducting domestic searches.
Several Democrats praised her; some Republicans pointedly did not.
"I support Sen. Feinstein unequivocally, and I am disappointed that the CIA is apparently unrepentant for what I understand they did," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
One Republican also had a warning for the CIA. "Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it's true," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.