WASHINGTON -- President Obama's foes have been trying for years to uncover scandal in his administration. But the most damning allegation of wrongdoing was leveled on the Senate floor Tuesday morning -- by a friend.
California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been an ally of Obama and a staunch defender of the administration during the controversy over the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. So her credibility could not be questioned when she went public, reluctantly, to accuse Obama's CIA of illegal and unconstitutional actions: violating the separation of powers by searching the committee's computers and intimidating congressional staffers with bogus legal threats.
All of this was allegedly being done to keep quiet information about the CIA's detention and interrogation programs during the George W. Bush administration. Feinstein said that the CIA's actions may have violated the Constitution's speech-and-debate clause and the Fourth Amendment, not to mention criminal law and the ban on domestic spying by the CIA.
"I have asked for an apology," the 80-year-old legislator said toward the end of her devastating presentation, "and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate. I have received neither."
Feinstein is owed much more than an apology.
At the CIA's insistence, the agency had set up a "stand-alone computer system" for the committee to review 6.2 million pages of documents provided by the CIA in response to a Senate probe of the agency's interrogation and detention programs. But CIA officials breached the committee's network in 2010 to remove documents the agency had already turned over, including the "Panetta Review." That review, conducted by the CIA for then-Director Leon Panetta, found "significant CIA wrongdoing," Feinstein said, and corroborated the still-classified Senate report while contradicting the agency's statements disputing the report.
The 2010 conflict was resolved, the senator said Tuesday, only for the CIA to break into committee computers again this year, searching a network drive "containing the committee's own internal work product and communications." Senate staffers had by then printed the Panetta Review and put it in the committee safe -- legally, Feinstein said.
If the White House wishes to repair the damage, it would declassify the report done by Feinstein's committee -- along with the Panetta Review. If the White House won't, Feinstein's panel and others would be justified in holding up CIA funding and nominations and conducting public hearings.
Obama also should remove those people involved in spying on the Senate panel and in harassing Senate staffers. First out should be Robert Eatinger, the CIA's acting general counsel. Previously, Eatinger had been a lawyer in the unit that conducted the interrogation program at the heart of the Senate's probe. Eatinger, Feinstein said, filed a "crimes report" with the Justice Department suggesting that congressional staffers had stolen the Panetta Review.
The staffers, Feinstein said, "were provided access to the Panetta Review by the CIA itself. As a result, there is no legitimate reason to allege to the Justice Department that Senate staff may have committed a crime. I view the acting counsel general's referral as a potential effort to intimidate this staff." The president might also consider whether he wants to tolerate the imperious behavior of CIA Director John Brennan, who promptly dismissed Feinstein's allegations Tuesday. Feinstein said that Brennan had previously told her that the CIA would continue snooping on the committee staff.
The Justice Department is investigating the CIA's actions, but Feinstein said that the CIA had stated at one point that "the removal of the documents was ordered by the White House." The White House denied the claim. This would be a good matter for a special prosecutor to examine.
Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists'Government Secrecy Project, called Feinstein's allegations a "historic rupture" between the CIA and the committees that oversee it.
The accusations of constitutional violations are more serious and better documented than wrongdoing alleged by Republicans in the IRS or Benghazi "scandals" subjected to numerous probes. In the House, Democrats say they'd support a bipartisan investigation of the CIA's actions.
That's not likely to happen because the allegations don't suggest political motives and because the Obama administration is concealing information about the Bush administration's torture program. But if Republicans really care about protecting the Constitution, they'll join Feinstein in demanding justice.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.