A gripping battle between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Senate Intelligence Committee broke into public view Tuesday morning, as Senator Dianne Feinstein openly accused the CIA of spying on congressional staffers as they investigated the agency’s illegal detention and interrogation programs under President George W. Bush.
Feinstein’s allegations raise grave questions about how the executive branch interprets constitutional separation of powers, along with raising serious concerns about the integrity of congressional oversight of US intelligence agencies. And lurking in the background is the country’s dirty history of torture following the September 11 terror attacks, which top officials—including those appointed by President Obama—seem determined to brush into the dustbin of history.
In a lengthy speech on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, which you can read here, Feinstein explained how the Senate Intelligence Committee, which she chairs, has come to believe that the CIA infiltrated Senate computers in order to see what investigators had learned about the Bush-era torture programs. She also described the removal of crucial documents from those computers by the CIA.
How We Got Here
The backstory is crucial here, and the issues of congressional oversight and constitutional separation of powers echo throughout.
In 2002, the Bush administration authorized the CIA to begin detaining terror suspects and subjecting them to “enhanced interrogation techniques”—measures that most people now recognize with the less sanitary word: torture.
For years, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were unaware of this program, save the chair and vice chair. The full committee was abruptly informed of the program by then-CIA Director Michael Hayden in September 2006, only hours before President Bush announced the existence of the program to the public. About a year later, The New York Times reported that the CIA was destroying videotapes of the first “enhanced” interrogations conducted by the agency.
By then, Democrats had taken control of the Senate and demanded answers. Hayden explained to the committee that the videotapes had to be destroyed, but that the CIA possessed paper records and operational cables that were “a more than adequate representation” of what was on the video tapes. He allowed committee investigators to review those documents, which they did over a period of years, culminating in 2009.
What they found was “chilling,” in the words of Feinstein this morning—the interrogations were “far different and far more harsh” than what the CIA had been admitting. Feinstein then wanted a full review of the program by Senate Intelligence Committee, which it approved by a 14-1 vote.
Initially, as she noted this morning, Feinstein wanted the CIA to turn over all relevant documents to the committee in their usual offices, as had been done in the past. Then—CIA Director Leon Panetta, who had been appointed by Barack Obama and confirmed just a month earlier, had other ideas.