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 neither approved the CIA move to refer its complaint to the Justice Department nor provided any advice to the agency, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said. "There was no comment, there was no weighing in, there was no judgment," he 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 Tuesday when Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., accused the CIA of snooping in a computer network it had set up for committee aides conducting an investigation into the CIA's George W. Bush-era interrogation and detention program, 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.
Mr. Carney made his comments at the White House as the Senate Intelligence panel's top Republican avoided taking sides in the dispute between the chairwoman and the spy agency. Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss said in a Senate floor speech that 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.
Mr. Carney did not specify whether President Barack Obama was directly aware of the CIA decision, saying more broadly, "The president has been aware in general about the protocols and the discussions and occasional disputes involved."
Mr. Obama avoided commenting on his involvement at the end of a White House meeting Wednesday with female Democratic lawmakers about women's economic issues. "With respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA," he said, 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."
Mr. Carney's confirmation of White House awareness of the CIA decision deepens the complicated chronology that led the committee head to denounce the CIA and its top officials Tuesday for allegedly trying to intimidate and monitor the agency's congressional overseers.
Ms. Feinstein's committee has been investigating the CIA's now-shuttered "black site" overseas prison system and harsh detainee interrogation techniques. The committee's long-overdue report has been stymied by its inability to fully review a classified CIA report on the secret interrogations, while CIA officials have questioned whether Senate investigators breached a classified computer system in their efforts to press for the material.
Mr. Carney said Mr. Brennan and acting CIA general counsel Robert Eatinger informed White House officials about the agency decision to make a referral to the Justice Department. He would not say when that notification occurred.
A spokesman for national intelligence director James Clapper said Wednesday that Mr. Clapper has been "fully aware of the circumstances related to this matter and is in regular contact with Director Brennan."
DNI spokesman Shawn Turner did not say whether Mr. Clapper was told in advance of the CIA plans to file its complaint to Justice, or whether he approved of that. "Commenting on this issue while it is under review by the Justice Department would be inappropriate for someone in his position," Mr. Turner said.
Ms. Feinstein castigated Mr. Eatinger, though not by name, and characterized the move as "a potential effort to intimidate this [Senate panel] staff, and I am not taking it lightly." She contended that CIA officials monitored Senate aides as they worked on their report, raising concerns of a clash between the legislative and executive branch over the Constitution's separation of powers.
Ms. Feinstein said the CIA actions appeared designed to hamper her panel's inquiry and may have violated the Constitution, federal law and an executive order that bars the agency from conducting domestic searches.
Mr. Brennan said the CIA was "not in any way, shape or form trying to thwart this report's progression."
Mr. 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," he 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."