Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, lashed out against the CIA on March 11 in a sharply worded 45-minute speech that took other Senators by surprise.
President Barack Obama’s appointee to head the CIA, John Brennon, issued a denial a few hours after Feinstein’s speech, virtually charging her with lying.
It is no wonder that her speech was a bombshell. Feinstein has a well-earned reputation of being little more than a shill for the CIA, NSA and other spy agencies over the years.
Her most notorious role in that regard has been her recent vociferous defence of the vast spying on all US citizens and much of the world by the NSA, that was revealed by Edward Snowden.
Feinstein has publicly called Snowden a traitor, demanded that he be captured and brought to trial under the witch-hunting Espionage Act, and said “it could well be” that Snowden was a paid Russian spy.
The committee she heads, which is supposed to oversee the activities of the various spy agencies, has also approved the CIA’s infamous drone strikes and the FBI’s use of the Patriot Act to undermine civil liberties.
Feinstein's conflict with the CIA concerns a more narrow issue. This is the agency’s detention policies in the “war on terror” for eight years under the administration of George W Bush.
These policies included the widespread use of torture, secret prisons, indefinite jailing of people without charges, and “special rendition” of some prisoners to Assad’s Syria, Mubarak’s Egypt and elsewhere for more extreme forms of torture.
The committee prepared a report of about 6300 pages on those activities, which was ready over a year ago. The CIA has blocked the report.
The New York Times editorialised on March 11: “It was outrageous enough when two successive presidents [Bush and Obama] papered over the Central Intelligence Agency’s history of illegal detention, rendition, torture and fruitless harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects.
“Now … Senator Dianne Feinstein, has provided stark and convincing evidence that the CIA may have committed crimes to prevent the exposure of interrogations that she said were ‘far different and far more harsh’ than anything the agency had described to Congress.”
Feinstein accused the CIA of withholding information from the committee about the treatment of prisoners and deleting about 900 pages from computers the committee was using.
She also accused it of trying to intimidate the committee by urging the FBI to bring charges against it for the “crime” of finding incriminating CIA documents that the CIA said were to be kept secret from the committee for reasons of “national security”.
Feinstein said an internal review by the CIA’s own inspector general came to the same conclusions as the committee’s staff report. It was the committee’s discovery of this internal review that the CIA said was a crime. The CIA accused the committee of hacking CIA computers to find it.
The CIA's attorney who is charging the committee had previously been the lawyer for the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center the section of the spy agency running its detention and torture program.
The NYT surmises that this was Robert Eatinger, the CIA’s deputy general counsel. Eatinger was one of two lawyers who, in 2005, approved the destruction of videotapes showing brutal interrogations of prisoners by the CIA.
It was not until 2007 that the CIA’s destruction of those videotapes became known. That was the reason the Senate Intelligence Committee began its investigation, culminating years later in its report.
If these charges and counter-charges seem confusing, that is only a reflection of the Kafkaesque labyrinth of the government's vast trove of "classified" material that it does not want the world to see its dirty laundry.
The committee found the CIA lied when it said the torture produced useful intelligence. Feinstein said this was also the conclusion of the internal CIA report.
Feinstein strongly suggested the CIA’s obstruction of the committee’s report was a violation of the separation of powers under the US Constitution and of the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
The Fourth Amendment states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
We are left with the spectacle of Feinstein approving the violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of every US citizen by the NSA, while denouncing the CIA when it comes to her rights.
Feinstein is a leading Democrat. Her charges against the CIA reflect a rift in the Democratic Party.
Senate leader Harry Reid, also a Democrat, has entered the fray on Feinstein’s side. Reid opened an investigation into what he called the CIA’s “absurd claims” that the committee’s staff had hacked into the agency’s network.
The rift also pits these Democrats against the Democratic White House, which is responsible for the CIA.
The NYT noted: “The lingering fog about the CIA detentions is a result of Mr. Obama’s decision when he took office to conduct no investigation of them.”
A March 12 editorial in the British Financial Times elaborated: “On reaching office, U.S. President Barack Obama said ‘we need to look forward not backwards’ on the Bush administration’s torture program.
“As a result, there have been no prosecutions on his watch. But the past keeps reaching out to grab him.”
Obama reacted to Feinstein’s charges by reluctantly “urging” the committee’s report be declassified and published. He could declassify it himself immediately, but wants the CIA to have more time to censor the most damning parts of it.
At the same time, the White House is protecting the CIA from the serious charges Feinstein has levelled of its constitutional violations.
Eric Holder, the attorney-general heading up the Department of Justice, has ruled out any investigation of Feinstein’s charges.
The likely upshot is that some version of the report will eventually be declassified, no doubt censored. But no prosecutions of CIA or Bush administration officials will ensue.
The issue will be declared “over”, and the administration will once again “look forward not backwards”.
Just as is happening with the NSA revelations, the huge national security state will remain intact, if increasingly discredited.
[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]