It looks like the NSA is not the only agency to potentially be eyeing a power grab

A fundamental pillar of the Constitution -- the foundation of federal government in the U.S. -- is the separation of powers.  Congress (the legislative branch) is supposed to be free to act without executive interference (e.g. the president and intelligence agencies).  But in the U.S. accusations are mounting that under Presidents Barack Obama (D) and George W. Bush (R) the executive branch illegally interfered with the legislative branch.
I. NSA Isn't the Only One Allegedly Spying on Congress
The latest accusations targets the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which has enjoyed relatively little scrutiny amid concerns of its sister agencies' role in the growing surveillance state.
For months controversy has primarily focused on the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), which has been executing a massive internet and phone record surveillance data collection scheme.

NSA eagle
[Image Source:]
Particularly troublesome is the fact that the NSA essentially admitted that it spies on Congress.  In a letter, the agency told members of Congress that they enjoyed no more protections from data collection than the average American.

The NSA, of course, "tries" not to view Americans' data, employing scripts to avoid looking at it.  The agency claims that it deletes it when it views it on accident.  Those claims, however, stretch the bounds of believability, particularly in light of the thousands of violations that are reportedly occurring every year.
II. Did CIA Hack Senate Computers to Try to Sabotage Torture Report?
The fresh accusations against the CIA are being led by U.S. Senator Dianne Goldman Berman Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the U.S. Senate Permanent Committee on Intelligence.  Her leadership is rather ironic, given that she largely defended even the most ambitious/controversial aspects of the NSA's (executive branch) bulk data collection programs, looking to institutionalize them into law.

Dianne Feinstein
Senator Feinstein (left) may finally have had enough of NSA spying. [Image Source: AP]
But what may have finally sent a wakeup call to Sen. Feinstein is the nature of the latest spying accusations.
Between 2001 and 2008, President Bush -- without the permission of Congress -- authorized the CIA and military intelligence officers to use torture on suspected militants in groups such as al Qaeda.  The tactic became relatively commonplace in a series of secret prisons in regions like Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2009, President Obama ordered an end to the torture campaign.  In the wake of that edict, the Senate began to investigate whether the CIA's torture campaign was legal and whether it positively or negatively impacted national security.

After negotiations, a special site was set up in northern Virginia where Senate Intelligence Committee members and their staff could comb through a trove of 6.2 million pages of unindexed documents.  The seemingly neutral ground was supposed to protect Congress from seeing documents that could endanger national security, while preventing the CIA from interfering with the investigation.

CIA Logo
[Image Source: AFP]
In 2009 and 2010, Senators and their staff began to notice documents they had been using were disappearing.  They alerted the CIA to their concerns, and the CIA in a roundabout way seemed to indicate that its employees had accessed the machines through remote backdoors and deleted some files.  While the CIA never explicitly admitted to doing that, Director Brennan apologized to the Senate for the issues, promising there would be no more disruptions.
III. Promises Are Broken
But in late 2010 the Senators got their hands on a critical document called "internal Panetta review", which according to reports may have been handed off to Senate staffers by a CIA whistleblower.  The CIA tried a two-fold approach to try to destroy the damning document, according to Senator Feinstein.
First it once again accessed the computers at the neutral facility.  And going a step further, it reportedly had agents hack into Senate laptops and delete many of the remaining copies.  These laptops connected to a so-called "stand-alone computer system" -- reportedly a network on site that the CIA claimed was secure to connect Congressional computers to.

George W. Bush
President George Walker Bush (R) [Image Source: AP]
Second, at the same time it looked to press charges against the Senate staff that accepted the document, which it claims was stolen.  The CIA implied that Senate staffers had hacked it (not the other way around) and had violated the CFAA.
In her speech Sen. Feinstein rebukes that theory, stating:
The committee staff did not hack into CIA computers to obtain these documents.
The CIA Inspector General reportedly also sent a report to the Senate, suggesting that a member or multiple members of its staff may have broken laws when they allegedly passed the document to Senate staffers.  Sen. Feinstein also condemned this statement, calling it "a potential effort to intimidate this staff."
The Senate review -- a 6,300-page report -- was eventually finished, but remains classified.  Its conclusion, reportedly, was that torture had not produced substantial results, while creating a substantial national security risk by breeding animosity towards the U.S. and risking reciprocity in hostile states.

Torture is Illegal
The Senate eventually produced its report, despite the setbacks. [Image Source: AP]
The CIA parried with a 122-page report criticizing some of the Congressional claims.
IV. The Boiling Point
It is unclear what led to Senator Feinstein's outburst this week, but clearly the animosity between the CIA and Congress over the CIA's actions had been growing for some time.
On Tuesday she took the Senate floor announcing for the first time to the public that the CIA had spied on the Senate.  Her speech can be viewed in the video below.

She went on to suggest that the search may have been not only illegal under the Constitution, but eligible for felony punishments under the rather ambiguous Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (18 USC § 1030).
Sen. Ronald Lee "Ron" Wyden (D-Oreg.) -- another member of the Intelligence Committee on Jan. 29 wrote CIA Director John Owen Brennan asking: “Does the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act apply to the CIA?"

John Brennan
CIA Director John Owen Brennan

Mr. Brennan's response is seen below.

Brennan Letter to Wyden on CFAA by Senator Ron Wyden

In it, he indicates that CIA employees are indeed bound by that law, while arguing that the agency sometimes needs to hack people, quoting the law:
[This act] does not prohibit any lawfully authorized investigative, protective, or intelligence activity.
To President Bush or Mr. Brennan, spying on Congress, might seem a "protective" act.  But the issue is the "lawfully authorized" bit.  While part of the executive branch, the CIA is bound by the laws passed by Congress, and it seems that Congress feels it never authorized the CIA to hack into Congressional computers (an authorization which would lead to obvious and troubling repercussions).
V. Protecting the Nation, or Seizing Power?
In a comment to NBC News, Mr. Brennan dropped the defiant tone of his letter, looking to distance himself from the growing hacking scandal.  In that interview he states:

We weren't trying to block anything.  The matter is being dealt with in an appropriate way, being look at by the right authorities, and the facts will come out.  But let me assure you the CIA was in no way spying on [the committee] or the Senate.  We greatly respect the separation of powers between the executive branch and the legislative branch.
I will be the first one to say we need to get to the bottom of it. And if I did something wrong, I will go to the president and I will explain to him exactly what I did and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.

It is unclear what President Obama's relationship to the CIA sabotage/hacking effort against the Senate was.

What was the President's role in the hack on the Senate?

Few are asking this bigger question, despite the fact that it is an obvious question to ask.  After all, during the CIA's actions spying on Congress, Mr. Brennan's boss was none other than President Obama.  While President Obama has been publicly opposed to torture of foreign combatants and was undeniably integral in ending that tactic's use, he also appeared to support the bulk collection of Congressional records by the NSA.

It's difficult to believe that the President knew nothing of Mr. Brennan's efforts to cover up executive branch and military wrongdoings, particularly given how closely they mirror the President's surveillance state philosophy that was inadvertently articulated by NSA leaks.

VI. Pressure on Brennan Mounts as White House Watches

The President has often expressed a degree of contempt for Congress.  For example at his State of the Union speech this year, he remarked:

I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook.

The message seemed relatively clear -- the President believed that at times it was necessary for the executive branch to seize -- or in his words "try (to seize)" -- absolute power, striking down opposing views from the legislative and judicial branches.

Obama and Bush
The CIA takes orders from the DNI and the President of the U.S. [Image Source: AP]

Again, if the allegations prove true, they were performed by the deputies of President Obama's hand-picked employee (Brennan).

At a press briefing White House Press Secretary Jay Carney's at least feigned ignorance of the activity.  However, it is also apparent that silencing an "uncooperative" Congress would not be an unfamiliar goal of the President.

It seems likely that the scandal may necessitate the resignation of Mr. Brennan.  More unclear is whether CIA employees involved with the hacking/sabotage attempt will face criminal charges under the CFAA or other laws.  Also unclear is whether the scandal will threaten higher up executive branch officials such as the Director of National Intelligence or the President himself.

Congress Buillding wide
Separation of powers is a crucial part of what keeps America free.
[Image Source: U.S. Congress]

Given that Sen. Feinstein is a Democrat she may look to stop short of blaming the President for the spying.  In fact, in reports President Bush was often mentioned, possibly in an effort to confuse the reader into thinking the spying occurred under the last Republican President. 

If politics indeed played a role in why Sen. Feinstein chose to blast the spying related to the torture probe -- an investigation of a Bush era tactic -- it may backfire.  Now that she's played the CFAA card, it seems likely that Senator Randall Howard "Rand" Paul (R-Kent.) and other libertarian-leaning Republicans and Democrats may look to level similar criminal allegations against the NSA for similar spying on Congress.  It's possible the President may even face accusations.

Many questions remaining in this latest spying mess.  But what is clear at this point is that the CIA and NSA have both been spying on Congress, at least in the traditional sense of the word -- although both would take umbrage at that terminology given their knack for creative redefinition.

Sources: Senate (filmed by AP) on YouTube, AP, NBC News

"If they're going to pirate somebody, we want it to be us rather than somebody else." -- Microsoft Business Group President Jeff Raikes

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