CIA Director John O. Brennan denied that the agency snooped on the Senate Intelligence Committee, even as one leading Republican compared the allegation to something straight out of the Nixon administration.
"First of all, there's never been an effort by the CIA to thwart the SSCI's investigation. They have their Congressional oversight responsibilities," Brennan told NBC News . "We've worked with them over the past year on their report, and we look forward to working with them in the future."
SSCI is a common acronym for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Brennan's comments came in response to a scathing floor speech by that panel's chairwoman, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, in which she accused the CIA of improperly searching computer systems and drives used by committee staff in developing a report on interrogation methods used during the George W. Bush administration.
"We weren't trying to block anything, and the matter is being dealt with in the appropriate way, being looked at by the right authorities, and the facts will come out," Brennan said. "But let me assure you that CIA in no way was spying on the SSCI or the Senate. We greatly respect the separation of powers between the executive branch and the legislative branch, and we're going to do everything possible to work with the committee in the future on its report."
The immediate reaction on Capitol hill was swift. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for instance, said he looked forward to being briefed on Feinstein's allegations, but he offered a stark warning if what she suggested proved true.
"This is Richard Nixon stuff. This is dangerous to the democracy," Graham said. "Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it's true."
"If it is, the legislative branch should declare war on the CIA," Graham said.
"She's speaking the truth," said Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy. "And I think if we're going to have real oversight in the Senate, we have to have people doing what Sen. Feinstein has."
Feinstein and Leahy have often found themselves at odds on the scope of authorization for domestic surveillance activities. The same can be said for several other Democrats who also praised her floor speech, including New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich.
"In an attempt to intimidate and silence our oversight work, the CIA has gone so far as to accuse senate staff of criminal wrongdoing. I reject those claims and I strongly support the Intelligence Committee staff tasked with writing this report and uncovering the truth about what took place under the auspices of the CIA's detention and interrogation program," Heinrich said in a statement.
"A year ago, I voted to approve John Brennan to lead the CIA, in the hope that he could help rebuild some of the trust between the agency and the Intelligence Committee," Heinrich added. "But here we are one year later, and instead of celebrating the bridging of a divide that has existed for far too long between the CIA and the Intelligence Committee, we find ourselves staring at a chasm far wider than most committee members have ever seen."