Sen. Dianne Feinstein: the woman who could rein in the CIA (+video)
The CIA and senators who oversee it have long had a rocky relationship. But allegations of spying Tuesday could be a 'defining moment,' says Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein is not to be trifled with. As the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, the senior senator from California has staunchly defended America‚Äôs intelligence community even as the world has railed against its mass surveillance of phone records. So when she takes to the Senate floor to say that the CIA ‚Äúmay well have violated‚ÄĚ the Constitution in interfering with her committee‚Äôs investigation of the agency, that‚Äôs a serious allegation.
It may also signal more muscular senatorial oversight of America‚Äôs spymasters, a function that has weakened over the decades since the 1975 Church Committee ‚Äď led by the late Sen. Frank Church of Idaho ‚Äď investigated the country‚Äôs intelligence agencies in the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam War.
‚ÄúAfter several decades of erosion of legislative oversight power and authority, a powerful committee chair is saying ‚ÄėThat‚Äôs enough,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ says Richard Baker, co-author of the new book, ‚ÄúThe American Senate: An Insider‚Äôs History.‚ÄĚ The oversight of US intelligence agencies is a crucial congressional function, and this faceoff is ‚Äúextremely weighty,‚ÄĚ says the Senate historian emeritus.
Senator Feinstein, he says, ‚Äúenjoys a huge amount of respect and is very thoughtful‚Ä¶. If somebody‚Äôs going to draw the line, she‚Äôs the one to do it.‚ÄĚ
She certainly did that on Tuesday. In an unusual and detailed speech, she parted the curtains on a committee investigation of the CIA‚Äôs detention and interrogation program begun in 2002 ‚Äď under President George W. Bush ‚Äď and which is now defunct.
During the course of the committee‚Äôs investigation, which was conducted on separate computers for Senate staff at a secure location in northern Virginia, the CIA multiple times denied committee staff access to documents that the agency had previously provided, according to Feinstein. It also conducted a search of committee computers at the facility, she says. The matter has since been referred to the Justice Department for investigation.
Feinstein spoke out Tuesday to ‚Äúset the record straight‚ÄĚ in the face of various articles in the media about the investigation. She said, for instance, that her staff‚Äôs removal of printouts of a CIA internal review of the program, called ‚Äúthe Panetta review,‚ÄĚ was perfectly legal and done according to security protocol. Although she acknowledged that taking a copy of the review violated an agreement with the CIA not to remove anything without prior clearance.
The agency‚Äôs interference with the committee‚Äôs work ‚Äúmay well have violated the separation-of-powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution,‚ÄĚ she said, and she accused the CIA of ‚Äúintimidating‚ÄĚ staff. CIA Director John Brennan on Tuesday denied the agency was trying to stop the committee‚Äôs work or that it had hacked into the committee‚Äôs computers.
Senate expert Baker points to decades of mistrust between the CIA and Senate oversight. ‚ÄúThe CIA and the Senate investigating committees have had a rather rocky relationship ever since the days of the Church Committee in 1975,‚ÄĚ he explained.
Perhaps with the exception of the Iran-Contra investigation during the Reagan presidency, the Senate has shied away from the massive investigations that characterized the Church era, according to Baker. They were too time consuming, required large staffs, and took place in highly partisan conditions.
Instead, senators have turned to outside commissions, such as the bipartisan 9/11 Commission that looked at how the US failed to connect the dots that led to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
It‚Äôs not clear how this complaint will turn out, but it would help strengthen Feinstein‚Äôs case if she had bipartisan backing. Senators in her own party are standing behind her. Two of the Senate‚Äôs Republican hawks, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, also spoke out.
"If true, this is Richard Nixon stuff," Senator Graham said, suggesting those responsible should be fired, according to the Los Angeles Times. Senator McCain said there may be a need for an independent investigation. If Feinstein‚Äôs allegation‚Äôs stand up, there must be ‚Äúrepercussions,‚ÄĚ he said.
But several other Republicans were reserving judgment, including the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Intelligence, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs disagreement as to what the actual facts are,‚ÄĚ he said, even as CIA Director Brennan urged senators to ‚Äútake their time to make sure that they don‚Äôt overstate what they claim.‚ÄĚ
In closing, Feinstein called this a ‚Äúdefining moment‚ÄĚ for the committee‚Äôs oversight role. ‚ÄúHow this will be resolved will show whether the Intelligence Committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation‚Äôs intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.‚ÄĚ
That‚Äôs a strong statement from the California senator, who, according to McCain, he wouldn‚Äôt try to ‚Äúsecond guess.‚ÄĚ