Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, made headlines yesterday with a speech accusing the CIA of a host of improprieties. As the New York Times account noted, Feinstein, normally a defender of the intelligence community, claimed “the C.I.A. had removed documents from computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff members working on a report about the agency’s detention program, searched the computers after the committee completed its report and referred a criminal case to the Justice Department in an attempt to thwart their investigation.”
Nothing offends members of Congress more than an infringement of their own authority, so naturally Feinstein’s charges led to a predictable chorus of anger on Capitol Hill. Yet key members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Richard Burr, are refusing to back up Feinstein, which suggests the case may not be as clear-cut as Feinstein alleges. Certainly CIA Director John Brennan denies her charges.
On closer examination the controversy becomes murkier and turns on legalities such as who owned the database used by Feinstein’s staff which was located at a facility in northern Virginia. She claims it was Senate property and therefore everything on it was privileged; the CIA seems to be claiming it was owned by the intelligence agency which granted shared access to the Senate gumshoes, thereby making it lawful for the CIA to move documents on the database or to check access logs in order to determine how the Senate got its hands on an internal CIA investigation of interrogation practices which the CIA claims is privileged information.
Based on the limited information publicly available, it’s impossible for an outsider to judge the merits of the charges and counter charges. The only thing we can say for sure is that it’s a critical blow to the CIA to lose Feinstein’s support. The rupture in her relationship with John Brennan threatens the agency’s effectiveness, at least as long as she stays chairwoman, which may be less than a year if Republicans pick up the Senate in November.
But let’s not be so caught up in the current charges that we lose sight of the underlying dispute, which concerns the CIA’s use of renditions, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” black sites, and the like in the years after 9/11. Feinstein is simmering in essence because the CIA has tried to slowroll and possibly even obstruct her staff investigation into these interrogation practices. Her staff has produced a 6,300-page report, which is still going through the declassification process and is said to be critical of the CIA.
It is important to get to the truth about interrogations, but it is also important not to scapegoat the CIA for controversial practices that, by all accounts, were approved by the most senior officials of the Bush administration and briefed, at least in some form, to Congress. There is no suggestion that the CIA was a rogue operation. It was simply doing what most Americans–and what its political bosses–wanted done in the wake of 9/11 to prevent another spectacular attack on the United States. What it did obviously worked, although there is controversy about how much of an intelligence payoff the coercive interrogations, which (let’s be frank) included the use of torture, produced.
It is not productive now to embarrass and shame the agency, much less to put individual intelligence operatives in the hot seat, for practices that were fully authorized by their superiors. That will only lead to the demoralization of the agency and a lack of the kind of risk-taking we need to keep us safe in the future. Of course the agency is not justified in obstructing justice to protect itself. But it’s far from clear yet that’s what it did. Sensational headlines about the CIA “spying” on Congress don’t help. We need to examine this controversy calmly and wait for more facts to emerge before making any judgment.