The fight between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee is far more than an inside-the-Beltway spat. The outcome will determine whether our lawmakers can really oversee the powerful spy agency – and whether it will be held fully accountable for using torture.
The dispute burst into public view Tuesday in a remarkable floor speech by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s chairwoman. She accused the agency of possibly breaking the law and violating the Constitution by secretly infiltrating computers used by committee staffers to compile a highly critical report on the CIA’s post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation” program.
Her allegations are being investigated by the Justice Department. If they are true, there is clearly an abuse of power among the agency’s top officials.
CIA Director John Brennan quickly pushed back. He released a Jan. 27 letter to Feinstein in which he conceded the agency had poked into the committee staff’s computers, but only to track a “breach or vulnerability” in a CIA computer network that allowed the staff to see documents that he argued they weren’t authorized to have. Some documents at issue, according to Feinstein, are related to an internal CIA review that reached similar conclusions as the committee report.
The committee’s 6,300-page report, which took four years and $40 million to complete, documents waterboarding of suspected terrorists, their “extraordinary rendition” to “black site” CIA prisons and other abuses that were unlawful, immoral and stained our nation. The study concluded that the harsh interrogation program – which started on President George W. Bush’s watch in 2002 and didn’t end until 2009, when President Barack Obama took office – produced very little valuable intelligence, say lawmakers who have seen it.
The senators on the committee approved the report in December 2012, but it remains secret, partly because of CIA stonewalling, which Feinstein said has been going on for years. She pledged Tuesday to push for its findings and executive summary to be released to the public to help guarantee that “an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.”
President Barack Obama said Wednesday he also supports declassifying the report, but said it wouldn’t be appropriate to wade into Feinstein’s tussle with the CIA.
That Feinstein would call out the CIA is telling, since she has staunchly defended the agency and the National Security Agency – to a fault. She called the power struggle, detailed by McClatchy’s Washington bureau, “a defining moment” for whether the committee can effectively oversee the nation’s intelligence agencies.
The panel was created in 1976 after a series of domestic spying scandals, including the targeting of civil rights and anti-war protesters, the wiretapping of journalists and the testing of behavior-altering drugs on unwitting citizens.
It took a long time for the CIA to overcome that record and win back public trust. Now, the agency “wants to put the rendition, detention and interrogation chapter of its history behind it,” Brennan told employees Tuesday.
That isn’t going to happen until the American people can read the Intelligence Committee’s report for themselves and until the panel’s role as watchdog is reaffirmed.