Three senators pummeled CIA Director John Brennan at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday, peppering him with tough questions on torture and domestic surveillance that he has refused to answer in public.
Brennan defended the CIA against accusations that it is double-dealing with the Intelligence committee about a report on agency torture, and he also received surprisingly pointed questions about whether the CIA spies on Americans. Such public hearings offer senators critical of the intelligence agencies the chance to telegraph their private concerns about classified programs -- and these questions could suggest there is something the public isn't being told about what the CIA does at home.
The committee's hearing on the intelligence community's "worldwide threat assessment" was widely anticipated. At last year's edition of the hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper claimed in response to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that the National Security Agency does not collect information on millions of Americans, which was later proven to be a lie.
This year's hearing began with committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) warning senators not to ask any questions which might require a classified answer. Wyden seemed undeterred, however, deriding a "culture of misinterpretation" among intelligence agency leaders that has "seriously undermined" the trust of the American people.
"These statements did not protect sources and methods that were useful in fighting terror. Instead they hid bad policy choices in violation of the liberties of the American people," Wyden said.
Ever since Edward Snowden's NSA leaks began to appear in the press last June, intelligence community observers have wondered whether the CIA -- which is also chartered by law to focus exclusively on foreign threats -- is similarly involved in domestic surveillance. Those questions have percolated at the same time that the CIA is under fire for its response to a torture report that was approved by the Intelligence Committee in December 2012.
In March of last year, before the Snowden revelations even began, CIA Chief Technology Office Gus Hunt said the agency tries "to collect everything and hang onto it forever." In November The New York Times revealed that the agency pays AT&T for phone records similar to those collected by the NSA. The agency also collects data on global money transfers.
Wyden, who has frequently used public testimony to hint at government programs he cannot reveal because they are classified, asked Brennan whether the CIA believes the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a federal anti-hacking statute, applies to the agency.
Brennan dodged. "I'd be happy to get it back to you as soon as possible," he responded.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) likewise asked Brennan whether the CIA ever does surveillance on U.S. soil.
"I can assure the committee that the CIA follows the letter and the spirit of the law," Brennan said, without directly answering Udall.
Udall revealed at a hearing last month that former CIA Director Leon Panetta had ordered his own internal review of the agency's torture of suspected terrorists. But Panetta's review was never shared with the Senate Intelligence Committee during the creation of a 6,300-page report on CIA torture.
In response to questions from Udall, Brennan said he had "not gone through" the internal review, which he called a "summary," at a June 2013 hearing when he spoke to the Intelligence Committee. He refused to answer whether the summary's findings differed from what he told the committee during that hearing.
"I respectfully would like to say that I don't think this is the proper format for that discussion," Brennan said. Instead, he suggested, he would answer those questions behind the closed doors of a classified session. "I look forward to discussing these issues with the committee at the appropriate time."
The release of the CIA torture report approved in December 2012 has been tied up in secret discussions between the committee, the agency and the White House on revisions to the draft. Many rank and file CIA employees oppose the release of the report, which they believe they will further embarrass the agency with revelations about practices like extraordinary rendition and waterboarding.
Brennan promised cooperation with the Senate during his February 2013 confirmation hearings, but some senators have been disappointed with his response to the torture report.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said he believed that the CIA's response to the report had been to "intimidate, deflect and thwart legitimate oversight."
"I respectfully but vehemently disagree with your characterization of the CIA's cooperation with this committee," Brennan responded. He said he looked forward to discussing the report in greater detail. But that discussion would come, he said, "at the appropriate time."