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The Guardian

If Dianne Feinstein is Michael Corleone in the CIA-Senate War, Will She Shoot?

Or will she and Harry Reid, the Tony Soprano of Washington, give in to the system that feeds their power and play nice?

If you want to understand the real nature of the current tussle between the Senate and the CIA, with Dianne Feinstein and now Harry Reid denouncing John Brennan and Langley for essentially spying on the Senate's intelligence oversight committee, all you really need to do is watch a few reruns of The Sopranos.

Yes, Tony and various other members of the different mafia factions often hated each other. And, yes, they were constantly looking for ways to muscle in, siphon off profits and deny opportunities to the other gangs. But even in the midst of a mob war, there were still rules. When Brooklyn boss Phil Leotardo goes too far, for example, his own people finger him to Tony for execution. "Families don't get touched," Tony explains to his wife. "You know that."

"So, yes, [the CIA and powerful lawmakers may] fight, but our Washington gangsters will fight within the implicitly understood rules. And those rules, apparently, include not calling torture torture, not declassifying a report on torture, and not demanding an actual investigation for acts of grave criminality."

Or take The Godfather: remember when Tom Hagen explains to Michael Corleone why they can't kill McCluskey? "Nobody has ever gunned down a New York police captain before," Hagen says. "It would be disastrous. All the other five families would turn against you. The Corleone family would be outcast. Even the old man's political protection would run for cover."

If you want to understand a fight, it's as important to understand what's not happening as what is. So, yes, Feinstein, Brennan and Reid are throwing punches, and cursing, and scratching and biting. But is anyone trying to gauge out an eye? Has anyone pulled a weapon? Are the combatants trying to kill – or merely to wound?

Why does Feinstein, whose oversight committee has reviewed a reported six million documents and produced a 6,300-page report on CIA practices Feinstein calls "brutal" and "horrible" and "un-American", insist on referring merely to a CIA "interrogation" program rather than calling it a torture program, which is what the program actually was? Why doesn't she declassify the report simply by introducing it into Senate proceedings pursuant to the Constitution's Speech or Debate clause?

And why would she claim "the CIA's search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance [and] may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution" … and then ask for nothing more than "an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate"?

All these grave charges, and all Feinstein wants for the CIA spying on the Senate is an apology?


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Then have a look at Reid's two new missives from late last week – his language couldn't be more restrained. Like Feinstein, he's careful never to say a word as problematic as "torture". And nowhere does he demand a criminal investigation, instead merely asking for Eric Holder's "support". The only investigation that seems to really interest the Senate majority leader is a limited exercise he can manage himself: that the Senate's sergeant-at-arms conduct a forensic examination of those Senate computers the CIA seems to have searched.

An apology? The sergeant-at-arms? A little support from the Justice Department? Does any of this sound like mortal combat? It's more like the familiar unwritten rule of the mob: admit you crossed a line, back off, and we'll get back to business.

It all makes an unfortunate sort of sense, because asocial violence typically occurs between individuals, not within systems. And Brennan, Feinstein and Reid – despite whatever personal loathing they might feel for each other and whatever personal prerogatives might be at stake – are acutely aware that their power depends on their continued good standing within the system. "There's a limit," Tony tells Phil. "Point where business bleeds into other shit. Feelings make things financially unfeasible."

So, yes, they'll fight, but our Washington gangsters will fight within the implicitly understood rules. And those rules, apparently, include not calling torture torture, not declassifying a report on torture, and not demanding an actual investigation for acts of grave criminality. Instead, we get a lot of pushing and posturing, combined with pleas for apologies and "resolutions".

This isn't to say it's impossible the fight could spin out of control and turn into something more like combat. If Brennan is too stupid or too arrogant to back down, maybe Feinstein will escalate by having a staffer start leaking details of the torture report. (It's possible this is already happening.) At which point, maybe Brennan will direct his people to come up with additional ways of trying to intimidate the Senate's staff. Maybe at some point, someone will feel desperate enough to start revealing where the bodies are really buried.

After all, Michael Corleone did kill that police captain – but only because the survival of his own family depended on it. And the Corleones did pay a huge price, with the other four families turning against them and Michael's own brother slain. Violating the framework of the system – the system that holds the foundation of your own power – is an extremely risky thing to do.

Well, we can hope. After all, it would be deeply beneficial to the country – indeed, to the world – if a few of America's oligarch's became so enraged at each other that they started publicly tearing into each other in ways that would expose and undermine the insidious system that sustains them. But more likely Feinstein, Brennan and Reid will remember how much they profit from the system, and back off before they do anything to damage it. Maybe like one of those ridiculous Sopranos sit-downs.

Most of the time, profits – and cooler heads – prevail. "I'm willin' to move forward," as Tony would say. "Let the past be bygones."

Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler is a novelist and blogger who spent three years in a covert position with the CIA's Directorate of Operations, then worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive. You can follow him on Twitter at @barryeisler.

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