Feinstein’s Allegations about the CIA Should not Surprise Us: A Historical Perspective


As the public dispute between CIA Director John Brennan and US Senator Dianne Feinstein continues, it is worth recalling a bit of history. Even a cursory review of the CIA’s past reveals that the Agency has acted outside the rule of law numerous times before and that it is willing to engage in extralegal activity to achieve its aims. In other words, when Feinstein declares that “[t]he interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detentions sites [post-9/11] were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us,” we should not be surprised. There’s little doubt the CIA’s interrogation methods—particularly waterboarding—amounted to torture, but this should not be viewed as breaking news. The CIA’s history of covert, illegal activity is too long to catalogue here, suffice it to say that Feinstein’s main allegation against the CIA—“that on two occasions CIA personnel electronically removed committee access to CIA documents after providing them to the committee”—appears far less extraordinary when placed in a historical context. Instead, it emerges as merely the latest link in a long chain of illegality.


If the CIA of 2014 is being accused of removing documents from computers to inhibit a Congressional investigation, we would do well to remember that the CIA of 1953 carried out the overthrow of a democratically-elected government. Documents declassified last August demonstrate that the CIA has admitted to engineering the coup d’etat that toppled Iran’s democratically-elected Prime Minister at the time, Mohammad Mosaddeq. And the Agency didn’t stop there. Just one year later, in 1954, the democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman of Guatemala “was overthrown in a coup planned by the CIA.” In short, we should not be startled that an Agency that previously orchestrated coups would seek to inhibit an investigation into their interrogation and detention methods.

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In addition to their legally-questionable and anti-democratic activities abroad, the CIA has a checkered past here at home. A Congressional investigation into the Agency’s intelligence-gathering activities during the 1970s, to pick just one example, bluntly concluded: “[t]he record shows that the CIA has engaged in a variety of clandestine collection programs directed at the activities of Americans within the United States. Some of these activities have raised constitutional questions related to the rights of Americans to engage in political activity free from government surveillance” (emphasis mine). Before the NSA overtook them as the kingpins of surveillance, it seems, the CIA was a national leader in domestic spying. Should we really be surprised that such an Agency would seek to hinder the SSCI’s investigation into their post-9/11 methods? The CIA is the same agency that executed the targeted killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, an action that was “extremely rare, if not unprecedented.” To be clear: we are talking about an Agency whose stock-in-trade is covert action with little transparency or accountability.


And let’s not forget the CIA’s actions that form the core of the present controversy: its egregious post-9/11 methods of detention and interrogation. The NYT editorial board informs us “[t]he interrogations included a variety of brutal methods,” which Feintein herself has stated include: “beating a detainee in Afghanistan, who later died in custody, with a heavy flashlight; threatening a detainee with a handgun and a power drill; staging a mock execution; threatening to kill a detainee’s family; choking a detainee to the point of unconsciousness[.]” These activities should shock the conscience, but they shouldn’t necessarily surprise us. History shows us illegal activities are not rare or extraordinary for the CIA—quite the opposite, they are relatively common.

Instead of focusing on the details of the present scandal, we should really be asking ourselves how to bring meaningful, substantive reform to the CIA. It’s been observed that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and Feinstein’s current allegations are only the latest marker in a long history of unaccountability and chicanery at the CIA. The maintenance of a Constitutional democracy demands better.