There are few things more important to maintaining an informed and empowered citizenry than being aware of what their country’s government is doing in their name. Or so the argument goes.
For the better part of a year and a half, the CIA and Senate Select Intelligence Committee, now headed by California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein have been fighting about whether or not to release a 6,000 page $40 million dollar report on whether or not details of the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation program’ were properly and fully communicated to Congress during the beginning of the Global War on Terror. For reference, we’re talking about waterboarding and the conditions of so called CIA “black sites” where terrorism suspects were reportedly taken for questioning. This is a difficult thing to unwind for anyone and while I’ve seen a lot of reporting on it I haven’t seen any analysis of exactly what’s going on here and I think that’s hindered the public from knowing whether they should care or not. They should care. Here’s why.
1. This Is Your Government At Work
The Feinstein report allegedly (I say allegedly because no one has yet seen the whole thing) states that the CIA tortured terrorism suspects and detainees in a manner far beyond the methods which were briefed to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the body in the Senate responsible for overseeing CIA covert operations and, in this case, detention and interrogations. Feinstein, now head of this committee asserts that in 2009 Senate Intelligence Committee staffers conducted a report on the early years of the CIA’s program which would have probably been for roughly the years 2001 through 2003 if other reports on the interrogation program are to be believed. In a letter she stated that “The resulting staff report was chilling. The interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detention sites were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us.”
So, the Senate Intelligence Committee determined that a full review of the program was necessary since this was a program they had supposedly been briefed extensively and approved of repeatedly. The feeling now was that they had been misled regarding the true details and facts of the program. Working with then CIA Director Panetta, an agreement was struck between CIA and Feinstein’s Senate Intelligence Committee that contained the following terms:
- The CIA would “provide literally millions of pages of operational cables, internal emails, memos, and other documents pursuant to the committee’s document requests at a secure location in Northern Virginia.”
- The CIA would provide a a “stand-alone computer system” with a “network drive” “segregated from CIA networks” which Senate staffers could use to review these documents. Additionally, only Information Technology officers at CIA were to have access to this computer and they were not permitted to tell anyone else at CIA what staffers were looking at unless members of the Committee authorized them to.
Let me unpack that for you.
- A) There is no such thing as a standalone computer system with a network drive. A computer system may be physically located by itself but if it’s networked to a mainframe such as the CIA’s then it is not technically a standalone. I’m sure this was necessary to provide the “milliions” of cables, memos, etc to the Committee’s staff but it is a deception to describe such a system as “stand-alone.”
- B) Information Technology officers in this case would have had two responsibilities in this case. The first would have been to provide any and all approved information to Senate Intelligence Committee staffers. The second would have been to make sure that no unapproved documents were accessed by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers. They were the gatekeepers in this situation and the CIA claims they had “firewalled” the data available to staffers away from the CIA network at large.
Early this year, the CIA reportedly became aware that Feinstein’s staffers had accessed a draft CIA internal review of their detention and interrogations program that had been presented to previous CIA Director Leon Panetta. This is known as the Panetta Review. According to CIA, this draft report should have never been available to Senate Staffers. The CIA claimed that staffers had hacked the firewall CIA had set up and illegally (yes, this would have been illegal) accessed the report, printed it, and taken that print out to the Hart Building which houses Dianne Feinstein’s Senate offices. This is according to a letter from current CIA Director John O. Brennan to Dianne Feinstein dated 27 January 2014.
Translation, your staffers took non-approved documents off our systems, took them out of a Classified environment, and into your office. I know you have the documents there and, what’s more, you don’t have permission from the President to have them. We need to talk about whether or not you hacked our system or whether this document was accidentally included in the millions of documents you were supposed to have access to. To continue:
Additional translation, what you have access to is an early internal CIA review of the detention and interrogation program which was intended for internal use and likely for the President. It’s illegal for you to have it.
In return, Feinstein accused the CIA of spying on Senate staffers and wrote a statement claiming just that.
So, what we have is a fight between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee over a document that CIA never intended them to have and which the Committee absolutely believes it needs to unwind the CIA detention and interrogation program which, from all reporting, included torture of detainees in a multitude of ways which the Senate Intelligence Committee may or may not have been properly briefed on. Clear as mud? Good, then you’re ready for the twist.
2. The Twist, Where This Gets Messier
The CIA is a part of the Executive Branch of the government. If you’re familiar with your three branches of government, Judicial, Legislative, and Executive, then you know that each branch of government has different powers. In the case of the CIA, the President of the United States has authority over them. Yes, President Barack Obama has final authority over the CIA. What this means is that if the President wanted the Senate Intelligence Committee to have the Panetta Review, the CIA’s draft report on their detention and interrogation program, then he would order it be given to them.
So, why hasn’t he?
The CIA has been accused of many things over the decades and has been shown to have cocked up a lot of things. Books like “Legacy of Ashes” have been written extolling the agencies absolute uselessness. Entire careers have been built on tearing down an agency that much of the rest of the world views as nearly omnipresent and omniscient, especially in the Middle East. However, in this case, you have two Presidents, one a neo-Conservative Republican and the other a supposedly Progressive Democrat, protecting a program that publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post have persistently claimed amounted to state sanctioned torture on the part of the United States Government and on behalf of United States citizens, you.
So then what we really have here is not a battle between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee. No, what we have here is a battle between a Democratic led Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, and a Democratic President, Barack Obama. This guy:
So, no, this is absolutely not a fight between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee. The CIA would absolutely have to release this memo if the President wanted them to. He’s already declassified 300 pages of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, out of 6,000, and refused to declassify the Panetta Report. So clearly he hasn’t done it because he wants it to remain Classified. Understand, there is no fudging on this. It is the truth.
It gets weirder.
3. Who Is Dianne Feinstein, She Sounds Like A Crusader For Truth In Government
In this case it seems that way, doesn’t it? Here you have a lone legislator representing an oversight body that’s been deceived on behalf of the American people. Now, nearly seven years after that deception she’s this close to finally putting together a report that will finally, finally tell the American people what happened and who’s to blame. Finally, the nation will be able to have truth and reconciliation on this painful chapter of our history and she’s willing to steal Classified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency to get it done!
We like good vs. evil stories, underdog stories, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington stories. Sounds like a movie, right? Sounds like fiction? Well, it is fiction. Here’s Dianne Feinstein’s voting record via Wikipedia using Project Vote Smart data.
- On September 14th, 2001 she voted for the Authorization to Use Military Force Against Terrorists which authorized then President George W. Bush the authority to use all “necessary and appropriate force” against those whom he determined “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the September 11th attacks, or who harbored said persons or groups.
- Feinstein supported the Iraq war resolution in the vote of October 11, 2002; she has claimed that she was misled by President Bush on the reasons for going to war. However, former UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq Scott Ritter has stated that Feinstein in summer 2002 acknowledged to him that she knew the Bush administration had not provided any convincing intelligence to back up its claims about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
- She was the main Democratic sponsor of the failed 2006 constitutional Flag Desecration Amendment which would have made it illegal to burn an American flag in protest.
- Feinstein was the original Democratic cosponsor of a bill to extend the USA PATRIOT Act. In a December 2005 statement, Senator Feinstein stated, “I believe the Patriot Act is vital to the protection of the American people.”
- In August 2007, Feinstein joined Republicans in the Senate in voting to modify the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by narrowing the scope of its protections to sharply alter the legal limits on the government’s ability to monitor phone calls and email messages of American citizens. Feinstein voted to give the attorney general and the director of national intelligence the power to approve international surveillance of the communications of Americans entirely within the executive branch, rather than through the special intelligence court established by FISA. Many privacy advocates have decried this law and Senator Feinstein’s vote in favor of it.
- In November 2007, Feinstein was one of only six Democrats to vote to confirm Michael Mukasey as Attorney General. Mukasey’s confirmation hearing was notorious for his repeated refusal to unequivocally state that the practice known as waterboarding was torture.
- In 2013 Feinstein called for the immediate extradition and arrest of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked information about the PRISM surveillance program.
- After the 2013 mass surveillance disclosures involving operated by the National Security Agency (NSA), Feinstein took measures to continue the collection programs. Foreign Policy wrote that she had a “reputation as a staunch defender of NSA practices and the White House’s refusal to stand by collection activities targeting foreign leaders.” In October 2013 she criticized the NSA for monitoring telephone calls of foreign leaders friendly to the US. In November 2013 she promoted the Fisa Improvements Act bill which included a “backdoor search provision” that allows intelligence agencies to continue certain warrantless searches as long as they are logged and “available for review” to various agencies.
Senator Dianne Feinstein like the rest of Congress at the time, ceded their legislative authority, their Constitutional duty, to declare war and granted the President authority to do whatever he deemed fit to bring the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice. She voted for the Iraq War, said she was deceived after she’d already admitted that she hadn’t actually been deceived at all and had therefore lied. She voted for the NSA spying program that sucks up the entire internet via the PRISM program and puts it on NSA mainframes for perusal whenever they determine they need to see it and she voted to remove oversight authority of that program from the FISA courts and placed them in the hands of the Executive Branch.
So now she says that she and the Senate Intelligence Committee weren’t aware of the extent of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program however she apparently knew they were waterboarding detainees and she voted for an Attorney General who believed that the CIA ought to be allowed to do that. These are facts. This is what happened. She is no voice crying in the wilderness. She is no hero. She is an accomplice and this fight isn’t a fight over “justice.” It’s a fight over the narrative of who is responsible for America torturing prisoners. Is it the CIA that’s going to be responsible or is the Legislature, specifically the Senate Foreign Intelligence Committee, her, that’s going to be held responsible?
4. No Innocents Here, Look Elsewhere
All parties here are complicit. Feinstein was heavily briefed from the very beginning regarding the CIA’s interrogation program. She and the rest of Congress authorized Bush to do it by ceding their oversight authority to him in 2001. Democrats then spent the next seven years complaining about what they got for that vote in public while approving of all manner of programs they now deem questionable in private.
The CIA largely appears to do what it’s told. There have been excesses and they’ve been well documented in many cases but what you’re not seeing here is anyone in Congress or the Executive Branch accusing the CIA of being loose cannons. Everyone involved knew what was happening. They went to the briefings. They read the reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times. The CIA, in this case, appears to have done what it was told and then, when they were done, they had enough interest in self preservation to destroy any video of them doing it. These people, if no one else, knew that the worm would turn on this one day.
And the President? Well, the President knows all of this and thus far he’s sought to minimize the release of information on what happened with the CIA detention and interrogation program either as narrated by the CIA or the Senate Intelligence Committee. But, at the same time, some report has to get released. The only question left here is how he can release a report that doesn’t burn either the CIA or Senate Democrats who were familiar with the program from the start. But no one’s innocent here. There is no good guy, only a bunch of politicians and intelligence agents who made questionable decisions trying to come out of an incredibly questionable period in American history with their skins intact. And that may well happen but it won’t be the truth.