On March 11, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., threw a gauntlet on the floor of the Senate, explosively accusing the Central Intelligence Agency of violating the Constitution by spying on her committee during its study of the agency’s post-9/11 enhanced interrogation program.
The usually calm Feinstein was furious. Fellow senators rallied, investigations began and party lines blurred as unlikely congressional comrades rose to decry what they saw as executive encroachment of their constitutional powers.
But nearly four months later, nothing.
“You know, I haven’t heard anything more,” said Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who was furious in the aftermath of the spying allegations. “I thought that we would hear more from Sen. Feinstein on that.”
But Feinstein has had little to say on the matter since her extraordinary floor speech, allowing an incredibly complicated scandal to fade from Capitol Hill’s memory.
The story is a tangled web of legal and constitutional questions, a high-stakes battle over the balance of powers that could have huge implications for the effectiveness of congressional oversight. The saga includes two criminal referrals, one against the CIA and another against Senate Intelligence Committee staffers, and an independent Senate investigation into the CIA’s alleged spying on committee staffers. And beneath it all lies the torrid history of the Bush-era interrogation program, which many have characterized as torture.
The roots of the battle were planted in 2009, when Feinstein commissioned a comprehensive committee study on the CIA’s controversial rendition, detention and interrogation program. The completed study, reportedly a tough look at the CIA’s handling of the program, has been disputed by the agency.
However, internal CIA documents, commonly called the Panetta review after the CIA director who ordered it, Leon Panetta, align with the panel’s conclusions, according to some Intelligence Committee members.
Upon finding that internal CIA documents confirmed the study’s key findings, staffers slipped the documents from a CIA facility and took them to the committee’s secure office spaces on Capitol Hill. The CIA, Feinstein said, had a track record of making important documents disappear, and staffers needed to ensure the Panetta review did not see the same fate.
But the CIA says the Panetta review, which somehow found its way into the massive data trove given to the staffers, was not supposed to be viewed by the committee.
Feinstein fired back, accusing the CIA of inappropriately monitoring committee computers in efforts to find how the Panetta review had been obtained by the panel staff in the first place.
The CIA Inspector General’s Office has referred the agency’s alleged computer monitoring to the Justice Department. The CIA also filed a criminal referral against several committee staffers, accusing them of removing classified information from a secure facility. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., ordered the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms to conduct an independent investigation into the alleged computer monitoring.
Months later, as the executive summary of the committee’s report slogs through the declassification process, there has been no talk on where, or if, any of the inquiries have progressed.
“That seems to me to be Sen. Feinstein’s primary responsibility. It’s up to her. She’s the chairperson,” said McCain.
But Feinstein remains tight-lipped about any progress. When asked if there had been any updates from the Justice Department, Feinstein offered a curt “No,” before slipping in to a closed panel meeting Tuesday.
The second-floor hallway outside the committee’s tightly guarded Hart Senate Office Building headquarters roiled with flaring tempers after the feud between the panel and the CIA became public. Within days, the hallways were eerily silent. As the panel prepared for its regular Tuesday briefing this week, staffers scurried down the hallway, whispering quietly to one another and dodging straggling members of the press. Members hurriedly slid through the frosted-glass doors.
The nearly 500-page executive summary of the committee’s 6,600-page report is expected to be released in the coming months. Although members say they hope the panel continues pressing for investigations, it seems the explosive allegations might only be rhetoric.
“I haven’t seen any followup on it,” said Intelligence Committee member Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “Obviously there’s been a bunch of other issues to discuss in the interim. I just haven’t heard a lot of conversation about it lately. But I certainly hope we’re not just going to let it go away.”
Based on conversations with several of Rubio’s Senate colleagues, it already has.
“I have not heard anything recently,” said Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, a former and now ex-officio member of the Intelligence Committee who fumed at the CIA in the immediate aftermath of Feinstein’s accusations.
“I haven’t heard any (talk),” said panel member Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats. “I think we need to get some resolution of what actually transpired. It’s not going to fall by the wayside with me.”
The Justice Department said there were no updates.
As the investigations stall and the report’s executive summary moves slowly forward, the relationship between the CIA and its chief congressional overseers remain tense.
“I’m not sure if it’s gotten worse,” said Rubio of the relationship. “But it certainly hasn’t gotten better.”