Why Sen. Dianne Feinstein Declared War on the CIA

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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.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks with reporters on March 11, 2014, after alleging that the CIA broke federal law by secretly removing sensitive documents from computers used by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the intelligence committee, speaks with reporters on March 11, 2014, after accusing the CIA of spying on her investigations.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

How do you spy on a spy? In the case of Senate investigators, you do it by adopting some of their methods. During the five year investigation into the CIA interrogation and detention program, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, working in a windowless room at the spy agency’s headquarters, suspected that key documents had been removed from their computer network. Luckily, they had a hard copy. To keep it from being destroyed, Senate sleuths spirited the document from the CIA and put it in a safe in the Hart Senate Office Building. The move set off a chain of events that broke open on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the intelligence committee, accused the CIA of spying on her investigators. CIA Director John Brennan insists the CIA isn’t trying to thwart her investigations. The Justice Department is now conducting two inquiries: one looking into whether the CIA illegally snooped on congressional investigators and another looking into whether those investigators broke the law. The accusations include lying to Congress and to the Justice Department, and spying on congressional investigators to hide what the CIA was doing. Frank Underwood will no doubt be weighing in soon. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

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

Since the rolling revelations from Edward Snowden began last year, members of Congress tasked with overseeing the government’s sprawling spy network have been trying to find a new balance between security and civil liberties. The president says there have been no abuses but admits that some changes must be made. This public struggle between Feinstein and the CIA illustrates just how hard it is to keep an eye on people who are paid to go undetected. Even if Feinstein’s accusations aren’t true, the painstaking process of cat and mouse that is revealed in this story suggests that the oversight process is so time-consuming, frustrating, and opaque that it’s almost impossible to apply the necessary scrutiny to the numerous programs that make up the government’s intelligence system.  

It’s hardly news that the intelligence community resists congressional oversight, but it usually appears to be part of the predictable tussle—resistance based on a desire to maintain the secrecy of security techniques that keep everyone safe. Feinstein’s accusations have nothing to do with that. She is claiming that the CIA engaged in a prolonged effort to cover its tracks and that this deception now includes a trumped-up Justice Department criminal report alleging that Senate investigators broke the law.

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We are no longer in a predictable fight between two branches of government anticipated by the framers. These are public accusations of criminal activity and a cover-up. It’s a class of warfare that people have been craving since Snowden started leaking secrets about the U.S. surveillance state. Whether you think the intelligence agencies have gone too far or not, it’s important to have the people’s representatives battling for their right to do the job the Constitution puts before them. Otherwise the system gets out of whack. That was one of the lessons of Snowden’s revelations and it’s also the point of the story Feinstein took to the Senate floor to tell.

The saga starts in 2006, when members of the intelligence committee were first briefed about a CIA interrogation program that had been in place since 2002. This briefing initiated an investigation by Senate staffers who by 2009 offered a preliminary report on the program that Feinstein described as “chilling” and far different and harsher than the way the CIA had described it in the past. 

The first level of oversight had failed massively. The findings from the first review initiated another one by the committee—a second attempt at oversight—which the CIA fought at every turn, according to Feinstein. They dumped an un-indexed 6.2 million documents on the Senate committee and requested that each document go through a multilevel review process before handing it over, making the investigation tedious and protracted. 

As investigators waded though the documents, some of the information that had been initially provided by the CIA started to disappear from the computer network. When asked about the unauthorized removal, the CIA blamed contractors, and then said the order had come from the White House. In 2010, Feinstein had to get the White House counsel to resolve the matter and order the CIA to return the missing documents, which it did. 

Not long after, documents started going missing again. This batch of ghost papers would come to be known as the “Panetta review,” referring to Leon Panetta, the former CIA director. They represented an internal summary of what had been provided to the intelligence committee. “What was unique and interesting about the internal documents was not their classification level, but rather their analysis and acknowledgment of significant CIA wrongdoing,” said Feinstein.

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