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When Difi Took on the CIA Over Torture

Feinstein in the late 1970s. Photograph Source: Nancy Wong – CC BY-SA 3.0

“Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.  So, even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he’s being really dumb to do this.” Senator Charles Schumer’s reaction to then president Donald Trump’s criticism of the CIA, January 2017.

This chilling remark from the Senate Democratic leader in response to Trump’s criticism of the Central Intelligence Agency regarding Russian hacking in the 2016 election remains perplexing six years later.  What in the world did Schumer mean?  Is he suggesting that the CIA could engage in antagonistic leaks or is he suggesting the “darker forms of sabotage and blackmail,” which was the interpretation from the American Civil Liberties Union at the time.

Putting aside the flippancy and drama of Schumer’s comments, the sad fact is that congressional leaders are intimidated by the national security state.  The outrageous defense budget is questioned by very few.  The unneeded modernization of strategic weapons goes forward without serious questioning.  There has been no serious oversight of the intelligence community, particularly the CIA, from either the Senate or House intelligence committees over the past ten years.  Under director George Tenet, the CIA lied regularly to the White House and the Congress about the efficacy of the torture techniques, but suffered no consequences 20 years ago.

Very few senators have been willing to tackle the excesses within the intelligence community, but Senator Dianne Feinstein (D/CA) has been a heroic exception to that rule.  Liberals and civic libertarians were a major part of Barack Obama’s constituency when he ran for president in 2008, and they had a right to expect his administration to investigate the CIA’s program of torture and abuse.  It was obvious from the start, however, that Obama feared a backlash from the national security bureaucracy and, according to the New York Times, “worried about damaging morale at the CIA and his own relationship with the agency.”

One of my reasons for supporting Obama in 2008 was his promise to demand more transparency from the intelligence community and to investigate intelligence abuses.  Even before the election, however, Obama appointed an intelligence advisory staff headed by  associates of former CIA director George Tenet, whose failed stewardship included phony intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War, the cover-up of 9/11 intelligence failures, and torture and abuse.  George W. Bush bought Tenet’s silence at the director’s retirement with the highest award that the White House can give a civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Why Georgetown University then made Tenet the Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy, which Tenet never practiced, cannot be explained.

About the same time, Obama made a Tenet protégée, John Brennan, head of the transition team at the CIA.  Brennan was slated to become CIA director in Obama’s first term, when CIA dissidents such as myself made it clear that Brennan’s support for CIA detentions and renditions would create a difficult confirmation process.  Obama did nothing about CIA’s torture and abuse, and said that the agency should  “look forward instead of looking backward.”

So Senator Feinstein did what Obama feared to do—conduct a serious and comprehensive investigation of CIA’s program of torture and abuse.  She ignored criticism from congressional colleagues as well as mainstream media pundits.  Even David Cole, currently the national legal director at the ACLU, wrote that the CIA got a “bum rap” from Feinstein’s report on CIA torture, making the absurd claim that torture worked.  Over the years, Feinstein demonstrated that she was not intimidated by the national security state and its humongous defense and intelligence budgets.  The national security state wields too much political power, and you can count on the fingers of one hand (Feinstein, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Ron Wyden, and Jeff Merkley) those senators willing to challenge it.

In Obama’s second term, he formally nominated Brennan who got through the confirmation process. despite Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster.  As director, Brennan did his best to stop the efforts of Feinstein’s investigation,  violating the separation of powers and embarrassing the Obama administration.  Feinstein’s staff was forced to work out of a CIA secure facility and not a secure facility on the Hill.  Brennan demanded that Feinstein accept a CIA computer system, and then falsely denied that he allowed his staffers to break into the facility and the system to monitor the investigation.  The full 6,700-page report  was never released; and the 500-page executive summary was largely ignored.  Feinstein battled the White House for nearly a year to get the summary released.

Brennan should have resigned.  Obama should have demanded it.  In previous times, CIA directors who crossed swords with the Senate intelligence committee often suffered political consequences.  In the 1980s, when CIA director William Casey lied to the committee on Iran-Contra, even such Republican members of the committee as Senator Barry Goldwater (R/AZ), called for his resignation.  Robert Gates had to withdraw his nomination as CIA director in 1987 because he had lied to the committee regarding Iran-Contra.  In the 1990s, CIA director James Woolsey angered committee chairman Dennis DeConcini (D/AZ), and the Clinton administration persuaded him to resign.

Ironically, Feinstein had been an enthusiastic advocate for Brennan and the intelligence community at his confirmation hearings in 2013.  She had defended the massive surveillance of the National Security Agency; the targeted assassinations of the CIA; and the flawed implementation of the Patriot Act by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  There had never been a chairman of the intelligence committee more supportive of the intelligence community than Feinstein.

Just as Gates was denied confirmation in 1987 but laundered his credentials in order to get confirmation four years later, Brennan was denied the nomination in 2009 but emerged as an Obama favorite four years later to gain the stewardship of the CIA.  Brennan made sure that the Senate intelligence committee’s report was seen by only a handful of U.S. officials.  Obama ignored an opportunity to change the culture of the intelligence community, and to restore the moral compass of the CIA.

When asked whether she was disappointed in Obama’s lack of support for the torture report, she replied, “…there are people who don’t want to look at the whole truth. And I don’t know whether the President read our report or not. I certainly haven’t heard from him since.”

Sadly, all we read about Feinstein in the mainstream media is her battles with dementia, shingles, and her hospitalization.  We read virtually nothing about her past battles with the White House and the CIA, let along her past battles for affordable health care and a woman’s right to make her own decisions.  Those critics so quick to show her the door should at least acknowledge her contributions for more transparent governance.