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.


Senator Feinstein’s Accusations Against the CIA: All Bark, no Bite?

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In what The Guardian called a “bombshell statement” and The New York Times dubbed an “extraordinary denunciation,” Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) accused the CIA of engaging in an “unauthorized search of the committee computers” relating to the SSCI’s investigation of the CIA’s interrogation and detention methods post-9/11. In particular, Feinstein said that “on two occasions CIA personnel electronically removed [SSCI] access to CIA documents after providing them to the [SSCI]. … This was done without the knowledge or approval of committee members or staff, and in violation of our written agreements.” There’s no need to write about the hypocrisy of Feinstein—one of the NSA’s staunchest defenders in Congress—crying foul about the “constitutional implications” of a “CIA search [that] may also have violated the Fourth Amendment,” because the cognitive dissonance there is obvious. And while there’s little doubt that Feinstein’s allegations raise serious questions about the CIA’s conduct and the efficacy of Congressional oversight of intelligence agencies, they should not pull our attention away from the big picture. The reality is that this entire episode, as H.L. Mencken might have recognized, is little more than “rumble and bumble”—a war of words between the CIA and SSCI that’s all bark, no bite.

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The accusations against the CIA have no bite because they are unlikely to bring real, substantive reform to the CIA. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. It was current CIA Director John Brennan, after all, who ushered in the era of targeted killing of US citizens when he “directed that lead responsibility for the [Anwar al-] Awlaki hunt would be shifted to the [CIA].” The New York Times has said that decision to place a US citizen on a list for targeted killing is “extremely rare, if not unprecedented,” and Glenn Greenwald has previously explained that the targeted killing of U.S. citizen of Anwar al-Awlaki by the CIA—conducted with zero transparency and no independent, impartial oversight—flipped the Due Process Clause on its head. Brennan was intimately involved in these “unprecedented” discussions that have serious Constitutional ramifications, and yet in the wake of Feinstein’s allegations he told MSNBC, in a phrase that sounds penned by a PR-firm: “I, along with my CIA colleagues, firmly believe in and honor not only the Constitution, but also the Bill of Rights, as well as all subsequent amendments to our Constitution.” Viewed in the context of Brennan’s prior (and present) endorsement of drone strikes against US citizens, his comment makes no sense. How can one honor in the Constitution at the same time one embraces a policy that violates one of its most sacred principles? Casting aside questions as to the efficacy or wisdom of drone strikes, there’s no doubt that when the government believes it has the power to execute US citizens abroad without due process, transparency, or accountability, we’ve crossed a dangerous line.

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And since the CIA was leading the way on the road towards the targeted killing of US citizens—with President Obama’s full knowledge and approval of the policy—the notion that the CIA will suddenly suffer serious rebuke or consequence for its role in the SSCI affair is unlikely. Brennan knows that Obama meant what he said after he was first elected President: when it comes to investigation of CIA interrogation methods post-9/11, “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” That probably explains why President Obama disregarded the CIA’s post-9/11 conduct and, far from rebuking the agency in any meaningful way, elevated their role in counterterrorism operations. WIRED reports that the CIA today “works intimately with [Joint Special Operations Command],” a unit that is better known as JSOC, or as The Guardian memorably put it, “Obama’s Secret Assassins.” It’s critical to keep in mind that JSOC has “imprisoned and interrogated 10 times as many [people as the CIA], holding them in jails that it alone controls in Iraq and Afghanistan” and that it “operates with practically no accountability.” In short, some of the US government’s most elite forces are working hand-in-hand with the very agency that was responsible for the egregious post-9/11 interrogation and detention that the SSCI is now investigating. With a President who spoke of  “looking backwards” on CIA torture five years ago and links the CIA with some of the government’s most elite forces today, what are the odds that he will want to “look forward” towards a future where the CIA operates under a meaningful framework of transparency and accountability? My bet is slim to none.


Compounding the issue of the CIA’s expanding role in Constitutionally-troubling counterrorism operations is that Feinstein is not the person to lead us down the road to reform and accountability. She has a history of sidestepping reality on CIA drone strikes or supporting them outright, and she has never delivered a “bombshell” or “extraordinary” denunciation of due-process-less targeted killing from the Senate floor as she did regarding the CIA activities involving the SSCI. By focusing on one issue at the expense of the other, Feinstein seems to be suggesting that the CIA targeted killing of US citizens (not to mention the NSA’s numerous bulk surveillance programs) are Constitutional and appropriate, whereas the CIA’s alleged removal of documents from a handful of computers the SSCI had access to are not. That could only be true in an upside-down world. There’s a whole slew of issues to unpack in the targeted killing debate—U.S. Constitutional law, international law, sovereignty issues, the laws of war, etc.—that are at least (if not more) serious than those raised by Senator Feinstein yesterday. But those listening to her speech on the Senate floor wouldn’t know it, as she focused her energies solely on the issue of the SSCI investigation. And even on that very subject, Feinstein’s “bombshell” and “extraordinary” accusation did not appear to demand much from the Agency at all: “I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate.”

I’m not expecting much more.