"What keeps me up at night, candidly, is another attack against the United States," Sen. Dianne Feinstein said last month in what was, then, her routine defense of the mass global surveillance being conducted by the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies. All that has changed now that she believes that the staff of the committee she chairs, the powerful, secretive Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was spied on and lied to by the CIA. The committee was formed after the Watergate scandal engulfed the Nixon administration. The Church Committee, led by Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church, conducted a comprehensive investigation of abuses by U.S. intelligence agencies, of everything from spying on anti-war protesters to the assassination of foreign leaders. Thus began the modern era of congressional and judicial oversight of U.S. intelligence.
This week's public spat between CIA-loyalist Feinstein and that agency might briefly upset the status quo, but they will make up. Sadly, it obscures a graver problem: the untold story of the United States' secret policy of torture and rendition (the latter is White House lingo for "kidnapping").
The conflict surrounds the mammoth, classified Intelligence Committee report on this notorious U.S. government program. Feinstein and other senators have sought the declassification of the 6,300-page document. We have now learned from press reports and from a speech Feinstein made on the Senate floor this week that Intelligence Committee staffers were given access to CIA documents at a secure CIA facility, somewhere outside of CIA headquarters. Feinstein described the scene: "The CIA started making documents available electronically to the committee staff at the CIA leased facility in mid-2009. The number of pages ran quickly to the thousands, tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands, and then into the millions. The documents that were provided came without any index, without organizational structure. It was a true 'document dump' that our committee staff had to go through and make sense of."
Whether it was in those millions of pages, or provided to the Intelligence Committee staff from a CIA whistle-blower, we do not yet know--but a key document surfaced, called the "Internal Panetta Review," ostensibly named after Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA at the time. Feinstein said in her floor speech, "What was unique and interesting about the internal documents was ... their analysis and acknowledgement of significant CIA wrongdoing." This "Internal Panetta Review" specifically contradicts the CIA's own written testimony to the Intelligence Committee. Yes, the CIA was caught in a lie.
It doesn't end there. Mike German, a fellow at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice who served as an FBI agent specializing in domestic counterterrorism for 15 years, said on the "Democracy Now!" news hour, "This is really an extraordinary situation ... this is supposed to be oversight of the CIA that the Senate is doing, not allowing the CIA to set the terms for the oversight of their own work." Feinstein reported that hundreds of documents originally provided were later deleted by the CIA. Now, to add insult to injury, it turns out the CIA is seeking criminal charges against committee staffers, ostensibly for stealing the Panetta review.
Ray McGovern is a former top-level CIA analyst who publicly criticized the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq. He told me: "This goes back to the key question of supervising the intelligence community. ... People always say, 'After 9/11, everything changed.' Well, it did change. The president, on the evening of 9/11, said, 'I don't care what the international lawyers say. We're going to kick some ass.' ... Well, they took some prisoners in Afghanistan, and the first person tortured was John Walker Lindh, an American citizen."
The torture was widespread, vicious and conducted in secret "black sites" around the globe. This is what is being lost in the Beltway power struggle between Sen. Feinstein and the CIA. Lives have been ruined; some in U.S. detention died violent deaths at the hands of their captors. In the grim American gulag at Guantanamo Bay, hunger-striking prisoners charged with no crime, some of whom have been cleared for release for more than a decade, are subjected to vicious force-feeding and torture techniques that date back to the Spanish Inquisition.
Let's hope Feinstein's indignation is not quickly salved, and that the Intelligence Committee's oversight of the sprawling U.S. intelligence agencies is invigorated, with real teeth. NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden weighed in from political asylum in Russia, saying, "We're seeing another 'Merkel Effect,' where an elected official does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies, but suddenly it's a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them."
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.