When Senator Dianne Feinstein took to the senate floor last year and accused the Central Intelligence Agency of spying on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), the very committee charged with oversight of the CIA, it marked the beginning of a scandal that could have brought down the CIA like nothing the American public has seen since the Church Committee in the mid-1970s.
Senator Feinstein remarked, “I have grave concerns that the CIA search may well have violated the separation of powers principles.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was even more explicit, saying, “Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it’s true. If it is, the legislative branch should declare war on the CIA.”
If the CIA was spying on the Senate oversight committee, and in this case removing files on enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) from review, then the agency should have been shaken to its foundation. But by early 2014, it was clear that the spooks on the 7th floor were walking away clean. After such venom and hyperbole was slung against the CIA, why did the Senate, namely Feinstein, back down from their original accusations?
It starts with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s review of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, including what is colloquially known as “waterboarding”—used to extract information from captured detainees in the Global War on Terror. Acting in their oversight capacity, the Intelligence Committee conducted a review of the CIA’s interrogation methods for about five years. While many have decried the report as a biased and purely partisan effort to discredit Republicans, when news of the CIA spying on the Senate broke, it drew the ire of both the left and the right.
Feinstein and others had to fight the CIA tooth and nail just to gain access to the CIA’s internal EIT reports. Negotiating with the director of the CIA (first Panetta, then Brennan), the Senate was given access to around six million of the CIA’s internal EIT documents.
The reports were provided to the Senate on a secure computer network called the Rendition, Detention, Interrogation (RDI) network system, at a secure, off-site CIA building—probably in northern Virginia. The partisan aspect of the SSCI investigation into CIA-sponsored interrogation techniques becomes apparent when you take into account that there were two rooms within the CIA building for the SSCI staffers charged with the investigation. One room was for the Senate Majority members of the SSCI (Democrats at that time), and another room for for Senate minority members, the Republicans.
The SSCI should, in fact, be the least partisan committee in the Senate, its oversight duties so critical to maintaining a functioning and effective intelligence apparatus. However, what we see here is that the SSCI majority members were trying to manipulate the EIT report from the onset, conjuring up conclusions based on their previously held assumptions of what the CIA did or did not do.
Like any other building that stores America’s secrets, classified information was not to leave that room and was only to be used by the Senate in compiling their report.
Things went sideways when two Senate staffers discovered CIA documents which they had been erroneously given access to. Those documents included copies of handwritten notes and a spreadsheet which listed the contents of every EIT video the CIA recorded, including some which may have been destroyed. At least one SSCI staffer was fired from the investigation when he was discovered to be smuggling a camera into the CIA’s secured building.
While searching the computers, the SSCI Democrats came across other documents that they were not supposed to have access too. By clicking a hyperlink, the SSCI majority members were able to exploit a hole in the CIA’s firewall. They were then able to read thousands of files they were not allowed to view, including the so-called Panetta Report. Drafted sometime in 2010 in response to Dianne Feinstein’s initial inquiry to the CIA about torture methods, the report contained weekly case reports (WCRs)—executive summaries and other materials the staffers deemed important. These files were stamped as attorney work products, which fell under executive privilege, meaning that the staffers knew they were not supposed to be looking at them and were obligated to turn them back over to the CIA.
Unfortunately, in the deal worked out between the CIA and the SSCI, this entire information-sharing process of turning over RDI system raw documents to Senate staffers was unbelievably done under a gentleman’s agreement. Neither the CIA nor the SSCI actually signed any documents which outlined their agreement.
In an act which blatantly broke U.S. Federal law, the Senate staffers printed out the Panetta report, some 40 draft documents and 160 files, and then smuggled the report out of the supposedly secure CIA facility. The printed Panetta report was then locked in a safe in the Hart building across the street from the Senate. The majority members of the SSCI did not tell their minority counterparts, the CIA, or anyone else that they had these documents, keeping all other parties in the dark for another three years until quotes from the Panetta report showed up in Feinstein’s draft EIT report in 2013.
When quotes from the Panetta report were discovered in Feinstein’s draft documents, the CIA realized that they had a problem. While the CIA has been accused of “hacking” Senate computers, the reality is somewhat more benign. In an effort to plug the hole in their firewall, the agency’s IT people created a fake user profile with SSCI credentials in an attempt to figure out how the staffers could have accessed the Panetta report. They found that five computers belonging to SSCI majority members accessed the Penetta report in 2010 and 2011.
When the CIA closed the hole in the firewall, the Senate staffers realized that the documents were now missing. Senator Feinstein went ballistic, accusing the CIA of spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. In reality, this is probably why the staffers printed off the documents in the first place; they knew they were not supposed to have them on their computer to begin with.
When the alleged computer hacking went public, Senator Udall said, “The CIA unconstitutionally spied on Congress by hacking into the Senate Intelligence Committee computers…this grave misconduct not only is illegal but it violates the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of separation of powers.” However, far from bringing down the CIA, the entire episode seemed to disappear without any Department of Justice investigation taking place.
When it became clear that Senate staffers had broken the law by removing classified material from the secured room, Feinstein had to let the issue drop. Meanwhile, the question exists as to why John Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, ordered his own investigation and ultimate removal of certain documents provided to the Senate in error.
More than likely, Brennan ordered the documents removed by closing the hole in the firewall to protect his own. Many of the personalities behind EIT are now in very senior positions within the CIA. Included in this group would be many of the young women who worked in the CIA’s Bin Laden unit, and are now running the agency’s drone program—the program Brennan wrote the doctrine for. Furthermore, if this information was disclosed to the public, it would completely undermine the Obama administration’s claim that they had turned over a new leaf since the Bush administration. It seems that there isn’t that much of a difference between the Obama and Bush administration as many would have us believe.
In the end, what Senator Feinstein did was game the U.S. government’s classification system to advance her own career and appease her base on the left prior to stepping down as chairwoman of the SSCI. Her SSCI staffers illegally removed classified documents from a CIA database; she then quoted this material in her EIT report, then turned that report over to the White House before any SSCI minority members were made aware that the Panetta report even existed. She knew that once the report was in the hands of the executive branch, it would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, or perhaps a controlled leak to the press.
Brennan’s apology to the Senate was less about the charge that his agency hacked into Senate computers and more about his concern for the “optics” used when it came out that the CIA’s counter-intelligence department actually investigated and closed a loophole in the computer system that the SSCI was given access to. Although what the agency did was legitimate, newspaper headlines declaring “CIA Counter-Intelligence Spied on the Senate” would look quite damning.
Oversight committees are supposed to provide a system of checks and balances within our government. Taking into account past scandals within the CIA that led to the Church Committee and the Iran-Contra hearings, this form of oversight is critical to our national defense. However, in this case, what we have is an agenda-driven majority in the SSCI which manipulated facts and classified information to serve their own partisan ends.
It is unfortunate that Senator Feinstein felt the need to blemish her overall honorable service on the SSCI by throwing a bone to her leftist supporters with a politically charged report on enhanced interrogation techniques, especially considering that her staffers broke the law in order to write it.