Why Sen. Dianne Feinstein Declared War on the CIA

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 11 2014 9:58 PM

The Senate and the CIA at War

Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein has lost faith in America’s intelligence community.

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The power of these Panetta documents and the fact that they had gone missing didn’t become apparent until the Senate put together its final report in 2012, six years after first learning about the program and 10 years after the program had started. The CIA responded to the 6,300-page Senate report with a 122-page rebuttal in June 2013. What surprised investigators was that the agency’s rebuttal contradicted the conclusions that had been in the Panetta documents. “Some of these important parts [of the Senate report] that the CIA now dispute … are clearly acknowledged in the CIA’s own internal Panetta review,” said Feinstein. “How can the CIA’s official response to our study stand factually in conflict with its own internal review?”

The contradiction suggests that the CIA was trying to conceal its wrongdoing when it removed the Panetta documents from the network investigators were using. Fortunately for Senate investigators they had printed out the Panetta review before it disappeared. When they saw the discrepancy between what had been written internally and what was being said in public, they decided to remove the physical copies from the CIA in case someone there tried to destroy them as they had previous evidence.

The only problem is that the Senate team had agreed to clear anything it took from the building with the CIA first so that any sensitive information could be redacted. Senate investigators skipped this step with the Panetta documents. Feinstein is unrepentant on this point. “Our staff did just what CIA personnel would have done had they reviewed the document,” says Feinstein.


The purloined Panetta review now sits in a Senate safe. Members of the Senate intelligence committee tried to get a full copy from the agency, but in January the CIA refused. By asking for the official version, they spooked CIA personnel, who then secretly searched the computers the Senate committee had been using to prepare the report. The CIA rationalizes that search on the grounds that the committee had somehow obtained the Panetta report by unauthorized means, which Feinstein denies. 

Feinstein issued a series of letters to the CIA director asking for some answers and an apology. She’s gotten neither. The CIA inspector general has asked the Justice Department to look into the CIA’s Senate snooping. Weeks later, the CIA general counsel filed a crimes report to look into the actions of the Senate investigators. Feinstein claims the agency is trying to intimidate and stonewall. In fact, according to Feinstein, the general counsel is a star of the Senate report, mentioned 1,600 times. It is not likely that he is mentioned as an awesome guy. 

The last time the CIA got into a big public fight like this it was with George W. Bush’s administration over claims that Iraq was trying to buy uranium yellowcake from Niger. Ultimately, CIA Director George Tenet had to take the fall for the faulty information that made it into President Bush’s State of the Union speech. Before Tenet’s resignation, the agency and the White House traded several rounds of damaging accusations. Referring to their fight with the CIA,  a White House official at the time said, “We brought a knife to a gun fight.” Feinstein has started a public confrontation with those same forces for which she will have to be well armed.

This story has a simple message: The system that is supposed to maintain the balance between secrets and civil liberties has broken down. Many believed that it already had, but Feinstein, for good reason, had argued that even if changes needed to be made, the essential relationship between her committee and the agencies it oversees was operating within bounds. What she described Tuesday was a total lack of trust on both sides. The level of trust was so low that people may have felt it was necessary to break the law to fulfill their obligations. That’s not just bad for this particular relationship; it throws the balance between the two branches into even greater turmoil than it was already in.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.



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