Democrats charged Tuesday that the CIA has released documents about congressional briefings on harsh interrogation techniques in order to deflect attention and blame away from itself.
"I think there is so much embarrassment in some quarters [of the CIA] that people are going to try to shift some of the responsibility to others - that's what I think," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who sat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and was briefed on interrogation techniques five times between 2006 and 2007.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said he finds it "interesting" that a document detailing congressional briefings was released just as "some of the groups that have been responsible for these interrogation techniques were taking the most criticism."
Asked whether the CIA was seeking political cover by releasing the documents, Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said: "Sure it is."
The CIA has long been on the receiving end of harsh rebukes from Congress - on intelligence failures leading up to the war in Iraq, on secret prisons abroad and on the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects. But with the release of records showing that it briefed members of Congress along the way, the CIA has effectively put lawmakers on the defensive.
Intelligence officials insist it wasn't intentional and have not taken responsibility for publicly releasing the documents.
Asked for comment about the Democrats' charges, CIA spokesman George Little said only that the CIA "understands the importance of a strong relationship with the Congress, which in our democracy, conducts oversight of secret intelligence activities."
But another U.S. intelligence official went further, noting that the records of the congressional briefings were "prepared in response to a request from Congress."
Intelligence Committee member Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said it appears that "members of the committee or their staff were not in any way involved in [the release of the document]. It appears to come from the executive branch itself. ... I think it's unbelievable."
Added a top congressional official who has participated in the briefings added: "I think the agency wanted to get this out, quite frankly."
The 10-page document, which was prepared after an April 20 request by Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), lists 40 instances in which the CIA briefed members of Congress between September 2002 and March 2009. But they provide a vague description of the briefings, giving just enough information to fuel claims that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other top officials have long known about waterboarding and other tactics but did little to stop the techniques from being used.
The document came with a disclaimer from CIA Director Leon Panetta, who said that some of the descriptions of briefings "may not be accurate." And it was leaked to the press just as Democrats were debating the idea of a sprawling investigation into the Bush administration's interrogation techniques.
Questions about the CIA's motives have added to bad feelings between the CIA and Democrats on the Hill and in the Obama administration. Panetta tried to limit the release of Justice Department memos authorizing harsh interrogation techniques, but he lost a struggle with the department, and the memos were released. CIA officials fear that release of the memos could subject them to lawsuits and hurt officers in the field.
The memos are to be the subject of a Senate hearing Wednesday.
Feinstein acknowledged Tuesday that suspicions over the documents aren't helping the Hill's relations with the agency. But she said that's why her panel is conducting a classified investigation on torture in a "professional way" in seeking unredacte documents, e-mails and cables. And she said that she will include language in an upcoming intelligence authorization bill that would expand classified briefings to the entire panel - rather than just the chairman and the ranking member - except in "exceptional circumstances."
Still, she said that responsibility for the interrogation techniques the CIA used lie with the CIA.
"Look, the CIA has the responsibility - there's no question about that," Feinstein said. "Because you brief or notify doesn't mean there's any less responsibility of the CIA, any less the responsibility of the individual who participates in this - in my opinion."
But Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the longest-serving member of the Intelligence Committee, said that if Pelosi or other Democrats objected to the interrogation techniques when they were briefed on them, they could have offered legislation - or withheld appropriations for the program.
"We're not without power up here," Hatch said. "Now they can make a fuss on policy differences, but to try and besmirch the people who had these tough decisions to make during those trying times is really offensive to people like me."
Asked if he felt the relevant lawmakers were kept informed of the interrogation tactics, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who was the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, offered what he called "a strong, affirmative yes."
By Manu Raju