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White House steps in over CIA-Senate mutual accusations of spying

The White House tried to mediate between the CIA and the Senate panel that oversees it after both sides alleged they were spied on by the other over an interrogation program, a source familiar with the discussion said.

The involvement of the White House’s most senior lawyer indicates President Barack Obama’s interest in ending the increasingly bitter dispute between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Senate Intelligence Committee.

White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler has attempted to “de-escalate” the tension, the source said.

The fight burst into the open on Monday when the committee’s chairwoman, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said the CIA had possibly broken the law by spying on Congress.

CIA Director John Brennan denied that the spy agency had engaged in such activities, saying “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Feinstein accused the agency of searching computers used by committee staffers examining CIA documents when they were researching counterterrorism operations and the use of harsh interrogation methods such as simulated drowning or waterboarding.

The issue has escalated into a major fight over the interrogation program, which Obama halted shortly after taking office in 2009, and over the powers of the executive and legislative branches.

At the heart of the dispute is a more than 6,000-page Senate report on the CIA program, which was put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and included interrogation methods that critics say were a form of torture banned by international law.

Obama reiterated on Wednesday that he is “absolutely committed to declassifying that report as soon as that report is complete.”

“With respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA, John Brennan has referred them to the appropriate authorities, and they are looking into it, and that’s not something that is appropriate … for me and the White House to wade into at this point,” the president told reporters.

Brennan and the CIA contend that Senate staffers improperly got access to some sensitive agency documents as part of their review of the CIA detention and interrogation program, which took place at a secure agency building in northern Virginia.

The CIA’s acting general counsel, Robert Eatinger, referred the matter to the Justice Department for possible investigation.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Brennan and Eatinger informed the White House before making the referral.

Carney characterized the notification as “simply a heads-up” and said the White House took no other action: “There was no comment. There was no weighing in. There was no judgment.”

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Ruemmler have been in touch with Republicans and Democrats about the review to get both it and minority Republicans’ dissenting views declassified, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in an email.