Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. We found that out again this week. Not even John le Carre or Daniel Silva could write a spy novel as multi-leveled, complicated and unpredictable as the plot unveiled by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In a 45-minute speech on the Senate floor, Feinstein accused the CIA of spying on Senate staffers, thereby unleashing virtual civil war inside the nation's intelligence community. Backed up by evidence gathered by committee staff, she charged the CIA with stealing documents from Senate investigators, hacking into their computers, interfering with an official Senate investigation and violating the constitutional separation of powers. Indirectly, without naming them, she also blamed heads of the CIA and NSA for lying to Congress. We haven't seen a constitutional crisis like this one since Watergate – and President Obama is caught right in the middle of it.
First, the back story. This all began with George W. Bush's 2002 approval of "enhanced interrogation techniques," aka "torture," for terrorism suspects rounded up after September 11 – a practice not revealed by President Bush until 2006. A year later, the New York Times reported that videotapes of early interrogations had been destroyed by the CIA. Then-Director Michael Hayden informed the Senate Intelligence Committee that, while tapes of torture chambers had indeed been destroyed, 6 million pages of documentary evidence remained. At which point, carrying out its congressional oversight function, the committee launched an investigation into the use of torture by the Bush administration.
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There's only one problem. In order to review the documents, committee staffers had to travel to a secret CIA warehouse in Virginia, where they worked on computers set up especially for them, to which no one else had access. Or so they were told. Only later did Senate staffers reportedly discover that CIA agents had hacked into their computers and "disappeared" certain documents from their final report – a claim the CIA has since denied. And that's what drove Sen. Feinstein over the edge: the fact that the very spy agency Congress was, under the Constitution, responsible for overseeing was itself spying on its own oversight committee. She's charged the CIA with violating "the separation-of-powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution," as well as federal law and an executive order banning the CIA from conducting domestic searches.
On one level, it's tempting to ask: What's new? If our intelligence agencies are monitoring every telephone call we make and every email we send, and listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's private cellphone calls, why should we be surprised they're also spying on members of Congress? Of course, they are. But, by targeting Sen. Feinstein and her staff, they may have finally gone too far.
What makes this case so compelling is the fact that Sen. Feinstein has been the intelligence agencies' best friend in Congress. Breaking with complaints heard from many of her Democratic colleagues in the Senate, she stoutly defended the NSA's massive phone-data collection program. She insisted the program was necessary. She denied the NSA or CIA had abused their authority. She had no problem with their spying on us, in other words, until they spied on her. But now that they have, there will be hell to pay. Feinstein has demanded an apology from the CIA and asked the Justice Department to investigate whether CIA agents, in fact, have broken the law.
Hopefully, it won't stop there. We need more than an apology. Maybe this is what it will take for Congress finally to realize that our intelligence agencies are out of control, to stop bending over and to take steps to rein them in, much like the Frank Church Committee did back in 1975. And there's nobody better to lead that effort than Sen. Feinstein.
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And maybe this news of the CIA's spying on Congress is what it will take to convince President Obama to abandon his role as chief defender of the NSA and CIA and champion, instead, the need for reform of our intelligence agencies. And, while he's at it, to give up his crusade against Edward Snowden.
Let's face it. We wouldn't even know what intelligence agencies are up to today were it not for Snowden. It's time to stop treating him as a criminal, recognize him as a whistleblower, bring him home and give him a top job in intelligence. After all, Edward Snowden knows more about what intelligence agencies are capable of doing – and what they should and shouldn't do – than anybody in charge today.