March 12th, 2014
08:00 AM ET

Feinstein Says CIA Spied on Senate Computers

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee accused the CIA of secretly removing classified documents from her staff's computers in the middle of an oversight investigation, while another lawmaker said Congress should "declare war" on the spy agency if it's true.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein said CIA Director John Brennan told her in January that agency personnel searched the computers last year because they believed the panel's investigators might have gained access to materials on an internal review they were not authorized to see.

"The CIA did not ask the committee or its staff if the committee had access to the internal review or how we obtained it," Feinstein said in blistering remarks on the Senate floor. "Instead, the CIA just went and searched the committee's computer."

Feinstein said that she had "grave concerns" the search may have violated federal law regarding domestic spying as well as congressional oversight responsibilities under the Constitution.

"I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate. I have received neither," she said.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the allegations "dangerous to a democracy," if it's substantiated that the CIA interfered with a congressional investigation.

"Heads should roll, people should go to jail, if it's true. ... I'm going to get briefed on it. If it is, the legislative branch should declare war on the CIA, if it's true," Graham said.

Feinstein's comments pushed into the public spotlight months of behind-the-scenes wrangling over access to and the review of documents around the post 9/11 Bush administration program for handling terror suspects.

Brennan disputed Feinstein's claims relating to the committee's efforts to produce a comprehensive report on the practice that ultimately was ended by President Barack Obama in 2009.

"As far as the allegations of CIA hacking into Senate computers - nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn't do that. I mean that's, that's, that's just beyond the scope of reason," Brennan told the Council on Foreign Relations.

He also said that the CIA believes in congressional oversight and often has "spirited" conversations about agency techniques.

"We have made mistakes. More than a few. And we have tried mightily to learn from them," Brennan said.

Brennan said in a statement last week that he was "deeply dismayed" that some members of the Senate have made "spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama has "great confidence" in Brennan and the intelligence community.

Carney would not comment on the specifics under review by the Justice Department but said Obama supported the committee's investigation.

"The President has made clear he seeks the declassification, the findings of that report when it is completed," he said.

Justice Department asked to look into CIA/Senate dispute

The top Republican on the intelligence panel, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, said "we have some disagreements" on the facts and cautioned that improving the relationship with the CIA "is not going to happen if we throw rocks at each other."

However, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, called the allegations "disturbing" and added that "a full and complete investigation" is needed.

He also stressed that he's "never had a great deal of confidence with Mr. Brennan" and therefore has "no doubt about the politicization of Mr. Brennan," a former White House official.

The Justice Department is looking at whether to launch an investigation involving the committee's review of millions of documents at a Virginia facility and counterclaims by the CIA about Intelligence Committee staffers gaining access to things they shouldn't have seen.

Feinstein took issue with the CIA IG's referral of the case to the Justice Department as an attempt to intimidate the committee.

She said committee staff "did not hack into CIA computers to obtain these documents, as has been suggested in the press."

She said the documents were identified through a search tool provided by the CIA in order to select specific material, and that the pane would follow through with its report as planned.

The CIA viewed the committee's accessing the internal review ordered by then-Director Leon Panetta as a breach and confronted committee members about it.

The committee launched its full blown investigation after learning in an initial review that the CIA had "withheld and destroyed information about its detention and interrogation program."

This, according to Feinstein, included its decision in 2005 to "destroy interrogation videotapes over the objections of the Bush White House and the director of national intelligence."

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February 12th, 2014
10:43 AM ET

Politics With a Side of Caviar: Obama Welcomes Hollande at State Dinner

If you have to ask, you're probably not on the list.

U.S. President Barack Obama hosted his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, at a state dinner Tuesday night - the first of his second term.

The event is a highly coveted social soiree. The presidents were joined by Michelle Obama and the crème de la crème of Washington and Hollywood.

The invite list is culled from recommendations from the President and first lady, top government officials, the Pentagon, members of Congress, the Supreme Court and the State Department.

Movie stars and community and business leaders are also often asked to attend.

Among this year's invited guests were: J.J. Abrams, Bradley Cooper, Stephen Colbert, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Much like an awards show, guests streamed past a sea of cameras. Some stopped and talked to reporters.

The first lady wore a billowing black and blue dress designed by Carolina Herrera, and greeted Hollande along with her husband on the steps outside.

When the three came down a staircase inside, she walked behind the two men, because Hollande went to the dinner stag.

The main event was held in a tent on the South Lawn of the White House.

"We Americans have grown to love all things French - the films, the food, the wine - especially the wine. But most of all we love our French friends because we've stood together for our freedom for more than 200 years," President Obama said at dinner.

Attendees munched on four courses of American-grown haute cuisine: osetra caviar and quail eggs, a winter salad "served in a wonderful glass bowl to make it look like a terrarium," Colorado-raised beef and a chocolate dessert sourced from Obama's native Hawaii.

Before the dinner, the White House released the names and vintages of the wines poured at each course - a change from the last few state dinners, which listed only "American" bottles lest the price shock taxpayers. Reds from California and Washington State and a sparking wine from Virginia were the selections. None retail for more than $50 a bottle.

It all sounds very fancy - and it is - but state dinners aren't just about pomp and pageantry, according to the White House. Real work gets done.

"Behind the festive exterior of the social scene, the important business of government goes on - information is gathered - opinions exchanged - powerful connections made and appearances upheld. For these reasons White House invitations are the most important and the most sought after in the nation's social whirl," the White House website says.

Obama and Hollande are in the midst of a diplomatic bromance as they face international challenges that include the Syrian civil war, Iran's nuclear ambitions and economic malaise in Europe.

A socialist elected in 2012, Hollande arrived alone for the dinner after revelations in France of an affair with an actress and the subsequent end of his longtime relationship with Valerie Trierweiler, who was considered the equivalent of the French first lady even though the two weren't married.

It's not the first time a French president has come to Washington alone. Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, attended a formal dinner at the White House shortly after announcing his split from his previous wife.

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January 6th, 2014
10:33 AM ET

Obama: Extend Unemployment Insurance

President Barack Obama on Saturday called for bipartisan legislation to extend unemployment insurance, an all-important benefit for the longtime out-of-work.

"Just a few days after Christmas, more than 1 million of our fellow Americans lost a vital economic lifeline - the temporary insurance that helps folks make ends meet while they look for a job," Obama said in his weekly address.

"Republicans in Congress went home for the holidays and let that lifeline expire. And for many of their constituents who are unemployed through no fault of their own, that decision will leave them with no income at all."

The insurance expired last week when lawmakers failed to continue a 2008 recession-era federal law providing nearly a year of benefits, paid for by U.S. taxpayers, that kicked in when state jobless benefits ran out.

Congress will start the new year with an old fight: whether to extend jobless benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed. Obama urged lawmakers to restore the benefits.

"Right now, a bipartisan group in Congress is working on a three-month extension of unemployment insurance - and if they pass it, I will sign it. For decades, Republicans and Democrats put partisanship and ideology aside to offer some security for job-seekers, even when the unemployment rate was lower than it is today. Instead of punishing families who can least afford it, Republicans should make it their New Year's resolution to do the right thing, and restore this vital economic security for their constituents right now," Obama said.

Democrats argue the program is needed to sustain economic recovery and offer a lifeline to those struggling to keep their heads above water financially. Republicans counter the benefits are an economic drain and a disincentive to looking for work. The Congressional Budget Office estimates continuing them for another year will cost about $26 billion.

Many Republicans, including potential 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, have long insisted that the Great Recession-era extension of emergency federal benefits deters job hunting and is unnecessary as the economy rebounds and unemployment declines.

Obama said denial of the security provided by the benefits "is just plain cruel."

"We're a better country than that. We don't abandon our fellow Americans when times get tough - we keep the faith with them until they start that new job," he said.

"What's more, it actually slows down the economy for all of us. If folks can't pay their bills or buy the basics, like food and clothes, local businesses take a hit and hire fewer workers. That's why the independent Congressional Budget Office says that unless Congress restores this insurance, we'll feel a drag on our economic growth this year. And after our businesses created more than 2 million new jobs last year, that's a self-inflicted wound we don't need," Obama said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, plans to hold the first vote toward renewing the benefits on Monday, the day the Senate returns from its holiday recess. It will be a procedural test of a proposal to stretch the program another three months.

Democrats do not yet know whether they have enough Republican support to get the 60 votes necessary to clear the procedural hurdle, a senior leadership aide told CNN. The fight has played out repeatedly over the past few years as the two parties clashed in often dramatic showdowns rife with fiery rhetoric and lengthy filibusters.

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