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Feinstein Says CIA May Have Violated Constitution By Spying on Congress

This post has been updated.

In a blistering indictment of the Central Intelligence Agency, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday said the agency may have broken the law by searching computers used by congressional staff members who were investigating the agency's controversial interrogation program.

"I have grave concerns that the CIA search may well have violated the separation of powers principles," said Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on the Senate floor. "The CIA just went and searched the committee's computers."

CIA Director John Brennan, who enjoys an unusually close relationship with President Obama, fired back a short time later during an appearance at at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Brennan strongly pushed back against allegations of "spying" or "hacking" into Senate staffers' computers. "We wouldn't do that," he told NBC News' Andrea Mitchell, who interviewed Brennan before a packed audience.

But Brennan took a decidedly less confrontational tone than Feinstein. He said the CIA had supported the committee's investigation since it began and had spent considerable time and expense making documents available to committee staff. Brennan said that when all the facts of the controversy are known they will show that allegations, including by Feinstein and other committee members, will be proved unfounded. But he gave no indication that any additional information is coming from the CIA.

"It's not as though we're holding it back," Brennan said of the still classified interrogation report. "It's up to them [the committee] to release it."

The stinging remarks are the latest volley between the Senate panel and the agency over the legacy of the CIA's enhanced interrogation practices during the George W. Bush administration. For years, the Senate panel has been researching and fine-tuning a 6,300 page report that's said to be highly critical of the agency's interrogation practices. In order to research the program, committee staffers had to use computers provided by the agency in a CIA facility.

The CIA believes that Senate staff working inside an agency facility in Northern Virginia improperly removed classified documents that the committee was never supposed to see because they fell outside the scope of the initial congressional inquiry and were protected by executive privilege.

But Democratic senators on the committee say that the documents vindicate their own investigation, which concludes that the CIA's torture of detainees failed to produce any useful information about potential terror attacks. They also accuse the CIA of effectively spying on committee staffers by improperly examining the computers that they had used to review millions of pages of classified material in the CIA facility.

Feinstein, a longtime defender of the Intelligence Community, went further on Tuesday, accusing the agency of intimidating her staff in order to obstruct its investigation -- something she pledged not to take "lightly." She also raised the prospect that the CIA's alleged snooping violated the Fourth Amendment and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Both the CIA's and Feinstein's allegations have been referred to the Justice Department, and the FBI has reportedly opened an investigation into the CIA's allegations that the Senate staffers illegally removed the classified material, which consist of documents created after the interrogation program ended and thus technically fall outside the scope of the committee's inquiry. Feinstein denied that her staffers did anything illegal and said at times staffers simply wanted to print out certain documents for closer examination.

Following her remarks, Vermont Sen. Pat Leahy called it a historic speech about the importance of congressional oversight. On Twitter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said "her remarks today outlined one of the most important principles we must maintain -- separation of powers."

The CIA did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but CIA Director John Brennan has called allegations that his officers snooped on committee staffers "spurious" and "wholly unsupported by the facts." Yesterday, agency spokesperson Dean Boyd also pushed back against Senate allegations in a statement to Foreign Policy. "The CIA believes strongly in the necessity of Congressional oversight and we continue to cooperate closely with all our oversight committees." He said matters related to the committee's investigation of interrogation, detention, and rendition of suspected terrorists "has not prevented us from working productively with [the committee] on a whole range of matters -- from Ukraine to counterterrorism to Syria. In fact, CIA supports more than 1,000 engagements with Congress each year." Others have called this an historic low point between the committee and the agency.

This post has been updated to relfect comments made by CIA Director John Brennan.

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Gates: Crimea Is Already Gone [UPDATED]

The Obama administration is struggling to find a way of forcing Moscow to remove its troops from Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, but former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said this morning it is already too late to prevent the contested region from being absorbed into Russia.

"I do not think that Crimea will slip out of Russia's hand," Gates told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday.

Wallace pressed Gates to clarify. "You think Crimea is gone?" he asked.

"I do," Gates replied.

The Obama administration continues to insist that Washington and its international partners will find a way of persuading Russian strongman Vladimir Putin to end his occupation of Crimea, a point Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken reiterated to David Gregory on NBC's Meet the Press.

"If there is a referendum and it votes to move Crimea out of Ukraine and to Russia, we won't recognize it, and most of the world won't either. That's fact one," Blinken said. "Second, were that to happen, the isolation of Russia, the costs it would pay, would increase significantly from where they are now."

But Blinken struggled to articulate how the measures under consideration would make the cost of the Russian intervention high enough that Putin would rethink his gambit. The international community has been reluctant to sign on to U.S. efforts to impose sanctions on Russia, and the only steps the United States has taken to punish Russia have been relatively modest measures like visa bans and asset freezes.

That didn't stop Blinken from saying that President Obama has "made clear that going forward, in coordination with our partners and allies, we have in place a mechanism, with sanctions, to raise the cost significantly."

Gates, Obama's first defense secretary, said he was skeptical those types of measures would be enough to force Putin's hand. "We have to look at the reality of the options," he said on Fox News Sunday. "There really aren't any direct military options that we have. I think that some of the sanctions that are being discussed and the actions being taken, whether it's limitations on visas or travel, on potentially freezing assets of specific individuals, frankly I don't believe are going to be any deterrent for Putin."

It is also not entirely clear what such a policy would look like, though on Thursday an administration official told reporters that "anybody who is involved or complicit in violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine is as of this morning on notice that they may be targeted by U.S. sanctions."

Russia has multiple ways that it could retaliate against the United States if sanctions were imposed, and the Russian Foreign Ministry has said that "sanctions will hit the U.S. like a boomerang." U.S. companies are anxious that their assets in Russia might be seized in response if Washington carries through with its sanctions threat, and the Russian Ministry of Defense is already considering halting international nuclear weapons inspections, according to the Washington Post.

"The Russians haven't said anything to us about that directly," Blinken said this morning. "Obviously that would be a serious development. Inspections are an important part of arms control agreements. We've had arms control agreements with the Russians, and indeed with the Soviet Union, for decades. And throughout the ups and downs of that relationship, each side has made good on its commitment. So we'd expect to see Russia do that."

Gates, meanwhile, stressed that the administration should do more to reassure Ukraine's neighbors of U.S. support and to make clear that Russia would pay a price if it sent troops beyond Crimea.

"What we need to do is to show Russia that there are long-term consequences to this aggressive behavior on their part," he said. "Our tactical options are pretty limited."

Update: The White House also announced on Sunday that it will host a meeting between President Obama and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Wednesday. Press Secretary Jay Carney said that the visit will "highlight the strong support of the people of the United States for the people of Ukraine," and that discussions will focus on "how to find a peaceful resolution to Russia's ongoing military intervention in Crimea that would respect Ukrainian sovreignty and territorial integrity," as well as international economic support.