CIA has a lot of explaining to do: Our view
The Editorial Board, USA TODAY 8:47 p.m. EDT March 12, 2014
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, isn't one to throw bombs. Unlike congressional gadflies who abuse their oversight power to afflict their political enemies and make a name for themselves, the veteran California Democrat has been a responsible and low-key supporter of the intelligence community.
So when Feinstein takes to the Senate floor to level explosive charges against the CIA, as she did on Tuesday, attention should be paid.
Feinstein charged that the CIA had tampered with the intelligence committee's years-long investigation of the agency's brutal, post-9/11 interrogation program. Specifically, she said, the agency spied on committee staff and removed documents from committee computers that show the agency agrees with some of the committee's damning conclusions about the interrogation program.
What to make of this? If the CIA did what Feinstein alleges, its actions were an outrageous breach of law and the Constitution's separation of powers, and those involved must be held accountable.
The CIA insists the story is more complicated. Director John Brennan denies "hacking Senate computers" and insists that "nothing could be further from the truth." In a letter to Feinstein, he said that the documents were "sensitive" ones that "may have been improperly obtained and/or retained" by the committee, and that the CIA was merely trying to understand how it made its way into Senate hands when the agency had not officially released it.
The CIA has referred the matter to the Justice Department to determine whether Senate staff broke any laws, a move Feinstein implies is a naked intimidation attempt. It shouldn't take a Justice investigation to sort out who's telling the truth, and at this point Feinstein would seem to deserve the benefit of the doubt. But it looks as if an inquiry is both inevitable and necessary.
The broader context for this extraordinary confrontation is that it is part of the nation's continuing effort to come to grips with what was done in the name of national security after the 9/11 attacks. From its beginning in 2002, the CIA's "rendition, detention and interrogation" of terror suspects was shrouded not just from public view but also from the members of Congress whose job it was to oversee it.
With encouragement from the Bush White House, the CIA behaved as if it were beyond accountability, save to the administration lawyers who distorted the law to make torture seem legal. The agency even had the astonishing gall to destroy videotapes of torture sessions, on the flimsy pretext that written accounts were a sufficient record.
President Obama outlawed torture after he was elected, and he picked Brennan in part to try to move the agency past its dark days — something Brennan says he badly wants to do even though he supported the interrogation program, with reservations, as a former top aide to ex-CIA chief George Tenet.
In the absence of definitive accounts, Americans have had to rely on news reports and movies such as Zero Dark Thirty to try to grasp what happened after 9/11, decide whether it was justified and determine under what circumstances — if any — it might be repeated.
These are difficult, morally complex questions. The Senate committee's long-delayed report on CIA actions will be an important step in answering them. The sooner it's released, the better.