The dust is still settling on Capitol Hill after California Democrat Dianne Feinstein fired a verbal bazooka at the Central Intelligence Agency Tuesday morning from the Senate floor.
The Senate Intelligence Committee's chairwoman — normally a stalwart of Washington's spooks — essentially accused the spy agency of illegally and unconstitutionally spying on its congressional overseers.
Specifically, Feinstein charged that the CIA had searched computers used by her committee's staff during a five-year probe of the agency's clandestine detention centers and harsh interrogation practices following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
The investigation was carried out by the committee's Democratic majority, which compiled a 6,300-page report. It was finished in December 2012, but not made public, and Feinstein strongly suggested the CIA's actions — including a referral of her staffers' activity to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution — were an attempt to keep that document from ever seeing the light of day.
The 'Panetta Review'
Central to the dispute is a document the CIA apparently did not mean to include in the more than 6 million pages of records it made available for committee investigators to view on computers at a remote CIA-leased facility. Known as the Panetta review, it's an internal document that Feinstein said both analyzes and acknowledges "significant CIA wrongdoing." She did not explain just how it became available, other than to say it was found using a search tool.
But Feinstein also recognized that her staffers removed a printed portion of the Panetta review from the CIA facility for safekeeping at the committee's Capitol Hill office compound. Doing so, she insisted, had not breached any understanding with the CIA.
Hours later, CIA Director John Brennan denied his agency had hacked the Senate panel's computers.
"Nothing can be further from the truth," he said. "We wouldn't do that."
But Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the intelligence panel's top Republican, did not rule out wrongdoing on either side of the dispute when he addressed it on the Senate floor Wednesday.
"We do not know the actual facts concerning the CIA's alleged actions or all of the specific details about the actions by the committee staff [concerning the Panetta review]," he said, while noting that Republicans had not been involved in the panel's interrogation and detention probe. Both parties, Chambliss added, had made allegations against one another, "but there are still a lot of unanswered questions that must be addressed."
Chambliss said the situation may warrant a special investigator, but that does not currently seem to be in the cards — at least for now. After a closed-door meeting of the Intelligence Committee Thursday, North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr told NPR the panel had unanimously decided to carry out its own review.
"We've made a decision that we're going to pursue that as an internal course within the committee," he said, "and hopefully that will end any public review of most of the comments that are being made."
Another panel member, Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden, would not confirm what went on at the Thursday meeting. But he noted that CIA officials had earlier justified to news organizations the agency's search of the Senate's computers. "And then on Tuesday," Wyden added, "the CIA director tried to suggest that it really didn't happen at all. So there are a lot of questions here that don't add up."
The outrage over the CIA's actions has been somewhat more bipartisan than the probe that led to the blowup. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is not on the intelligence panel, but he was caustic after being briefed on the matter.
"If the CIA used its technology and its skill set to hack into a computer owned by the oversight committee to try to cover their butts and find out what kind of exposure they may have in terms of oversight," Graham told NPR, "that can't be ignored. We've got to address it head on."
As for the 6,300-page committee report, President Obama said this week its findings should be made public. But Burr, who's in line to be the intelligence panel's top Republican once Chambliss retires at year's end, said that won't happen anytime soon. "There's not a completed report yet," he said. "My only focus right now is on making sure that whenever the report is produced, it's factual and represents exactly what happened."
Expect even bigger fireworks once that report's findings get released.
On the first Sunday of Lent in Poggio Mirteto, a priest in the town's cathedral recalls the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
He admonishes parishioners in this hilltop hamlet just outside Vatican City to resist earthly delights during the time of penance and self-denial leading up to Easter.
"We must remember we are weak before evil, because the devil is very tricky," he says.
Just outside the doors, the warning goes unheeded as a parade of revelers passes.
The Freedom Festival
Every year, Poggio Mirteto thumbs its nose at Lenten austerity and instead celebrates the Carnevalone Liberato, or Freedom Festival, commemorating the day it shed the yoke of papal authority in 1861.
It was the same year Italy unified and became a modern nation. Until then, the town was under direct rule of the mighty Papal States.
"The town has a proud history of liberation from papal authority, even if today most of the 6,000 people who live here remain religious," says Renato Romano Renzi, Poggio Mirteto's vice mayor. "Upwards of 15,000 people from all around Italy are expected to take part in the festival."
Just as this year's festival got underway, the whole bacchanal was dealt a heavy blow: health inspectors shut down the food stands for not labeling the wine properly, and organizers called off the entire event.
"Somebody denounces us for what we do every year," says Laura Consumati, the Carnevalone Liberato's chief organizer. "This is a very troubled question, because this party is loved by us but not by all people in this little town that is very religious."
Thousands of revelers — some dressed as the pope, others as the devil — wander the medieval town aimlessly. It's the first time the event has been cancelled since fascist dictator Benito Mussolini signed the Lateran Accords with the Holy See in 1929, which established the Vatican as a sovereign city state.
The parish priest refused to comment on the cancellation of the festival, but a group of local churchgoers said they would be happy to see the event and the visitors gone for good.
Interpreting The Pope's Tolerance
Vatican watchers say such attitudes are in stark contrast with the accommodating tone of Pope Francis, who more than any pope has made welcoming gestures to non-Catholics, gays and even atheists.
"One of the things that is very, very important for Pope Francis is this whole idea of mercy, extending mercy," says Robert Mickens, a Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly The Tablet. "Friendship, befriending people, I think it is really important for him, and I think it's really sincere. I don't think, as some people have suggested, that 'Oh, he's really clever with the media.' Not at all. I think that he's the real deal on this one."
In Poggio Mirteto, anti-clerical rancor appears immune to the "Francis effect." Fabrizio Bernardi is a musician from Rome who just learned his gig was called off.
"The pope in Italy is the big power, and it's very difficult here to live free," he says.
Then, as suddenly as it was imposed, the embargo is lifted, and the Carnevalone Liberato is back on. For at least one day, these carnival-goers can remain outside the embrace of the church. Lent, it appears, will have to wait.
One day before Crimea holds a referendum on leaving Ukraine, Russia has vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution to affirm Ukraine's sovereignty and national borders. The measure would have declared the referendum in Crimea invalid.
Russia, a permanent member of the council, was the sole vote against the resolution, which had the support of 13 countries attending Saturday's emergency meeting. China abstained from voting.
NPR's Michele Kelemen reports for our Newscast unit:
"U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power says the resolution was aimed at finding a peaceful solution and upholding U.N. principles on the sovereignty of its member states.
"Russia's ambassador says the people of Crimea should be able to determine their own future because, he says, a coup in Kiev left a power vacuum. Ambassador Power says Russia's position is at odds with international and Ukrainian law, and with the facts."
Update at 12:30 p.m. ET: Russian Troops Reportedly Enter Ukraine
"Ukraine's ambassador to the U.N. just said that he got a call 40 minutes ago and heard that Russian troops entered the mainland on the south from Crimea," NPR's Michele Kelemen tells us. "And he appealed to the Security Council to find means and measures to do everything to 'stop the aggressor.'"
The Ukrainian ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, did not say how his country had responded to the situation. His account seems to correspond with an earlier report from Reuters, which cited Ukraine's defense ministry saying it had "scrambled aircraft and paratroops to confront a Russian encroachment beyond Crimea's regional boundary."
The AP notes that the incursion in Strelkova would be the first by pro-Russian forces outside of Crimea. Citing a border guard official, the news agency says "a contingent of about 120 troops" took over a natural gas distribution station in Strelkova, about 6 miles outside of the Crimean Peninsula.
Reuters adds, "Moscow leases the Crimean port of Sevastopol from Kiev to station its Black Sea Fleet. Under the deal it can station up to 25,000 troops there but [their] movements are restricted onshore."
Our original post continues:
In Moscow, demonstrators held a large protest against Russia's handling of the crisis Saturday. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart have not reached a breakthrough over the situation.
Today's protest in Moscow reportedly drew tens of thousands of people who criticized the Kremlin. From the BBC:
"Holding Russian and Ukrainian flags, they shouted: 'The occupation of Crimea is Russia's disgrace.' A smaller pro-Moscow rally was being held elsewhere."
In Crimea, Sunday's referendum offers voters two choices: joining with Russia or becoming more independent from Ukraine. The ballot's wording means "they cannot vote for the status quo," as The New York Times has reported.
Debate over the region's fate has heightened tensions between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian activists. Two people were killed in a clash that began Friday night in the eastern city of Kharkiv, the central government says.
A group of U.S. senators is currently in Kiev, where they've met with Ukraine's leaders and visited a shrine to those killed in demonstrations in the city's Independence Square.
McCain "believes Crimea may not be the end of Russian president Vladimir Putin's territorial ambitions," reports NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, who's in Kiev.
"Now I'm not predicting World War III," McCain said, "but I am predicting further encroachment by Vladimir Putin — for example the Baltics, for example Moldova."
Here are more highlights of the day's news about Crimea:
"Ukraine is a brotherly nation and we will not allow them (the government) to march us into a fratricidal war," activist Ilya Yashin said at today's rally in Moscow, according to Agence France-Presse.
The news agency says placards compared Russia's approach to Crimea "with the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland as Europe rushed headlong into World War II."
In Kiev, Ukraine's parliament voted to dissolve Crimea's legislature. From Radio Free Europe:
"An overwhelming majority of 278 lawmakers voted in favor of the measure, with one abstention. Seventeen legislators did not take part in the vote.
"Kyiv's Verkhovna Rada debated the issue on March 15 in a special session presided over by acting President and parliament speaker Oleksandr Turchynov."
In May, the Discovery Channel will be broadcasting live as Joby Ogwyn climbs to the summit of Mount Everest, and then jumps off it, descending 10,000 feet in a wing suit.
As this is clearly the last chance we have to talk to him while he's still alive, we've invited him to play a game called "Band on the Run." Three questions about Wings, Paul McCartney's lesser-known band.