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Commentary: The spies who didn't love her

by on March 13, 2014 10:20 AM

Even “Homeland” never thought of a plot this wild. The CIA hacks into computers that Senate intelligence committee staffers are using in the basement of a CIA facility because the spy agency thinks its congressional overseers have hacked into the CIA network to purloin hidden documents on torture.

It puts a whole new tech twist on the question from Juvenal’s “Satires:” Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guards themselves?

The Obama administration was caught off guard by Vladimir Putin’s power grab in Ukraine. Was the CIA too busy spying on the Senate to spy on Russia?

In his mad odyssey through the dark side — waterboarding, secret rendition, indefinite detention, unnecessary war and manipulation of CIA analysis — Dick Cheney did his best to vitiate our system of checks and balances. His nefarious work is still warping our intelligence system more than a decade later.

Barack Obama, the former constitutional law teacher who became president vowing to clean up the excesses and constitutional corrosion of W. and Cheney, will now have to clean up the excesses and constitutional corrosion in his own administration. And he’d better get out from between two ferns and get in between the warring congressional Democrats and administration officials — all opening criminal investigations of each other — because it looks as if the CIA is continuing to run amok to cover up what happened in the years W. and Vice encouraged it to run amok.

Langley needs a come-to-Jesus moment — pronto.

OUTS THE CIA

That was clear Tuesday morning when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, suddenly materialized on the Senate floor to “reluctantly” out the CIA.

It was an astonishing “J’accuse” moment because Feinstein has been the bulwark protecting the intelligence community against critics worried that we’ve become a surveillance state, “the privacy people,” as she has called them.

But she saw things differently when she was the victim of government spying. She suggested that the CIA had violated federal law and wondered “whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.” She said her staff, after dealing with CIA obstructionism and an unwieldy document dump while trying to get the truth about the agency’s detention and torture programs, somehow got access in 2010 to a review conducted under former CIA chief Leon Panetta, which she said acknowledged “significant CIA wrongdoing.”

She asserted that committee staff used a search tool provided by the CIA and did not hack into the agency’s computers, wondering if they could have been helped by a whistle-blower. But, soon enough, the Panetta review — along with about 920 other documents — began vanishing from Senate computers. Feinstein said that on Jan. 15, John Brennan, the CIA director, came to the Hill to tell her and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss that CIA personnel had arbitrarily conducted a “search” of her committee’s computers, worried that the Senate had improperly gotten access to the Panetta review.

In June, Brennan had issued a 122-page classified rebuttal to the still-classified $40 million, 6,300-page Senate report. But Feinstein said on the floor that she found the CIA riposte “puzzling,” given that the Panetta internal review admitted to what the CIA’s rebuttal objected to. Given the CIA’s 2005 destruction of videotapes showing the torture of two al-Qaida operatives, Feinstein said she has now locked up in the committee vault in the Hart Office Building the parts of the Panetta review that her staff had printed out before it disappeared. She has also requested in writing that Brennan turn over a complete version of the review to the committee.

She said she has received no answers from Brennan, who is no fan of Congress or the media, to her formal questions about the agency’s actions and no response to her request for an apology.

She was clearly appalled by the nerve of the agency’s acting general counsel, Robert Eatinger, in making a criminal referral to the Justice Department suggesting her staff is guilty of wrongdoing.

She noted that Eatinger, whom she identified only by job title, worked in the Bush administration as a lawyer in the CIA’s counterterrorism center, which carried out the notorious detention and interrogation program. She observed archly that Eatinger’s name was cited more than 1,600 times in the Senate report.

SCOPE OF REASON

In 2007, The Times’ Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane reported that when a CIA official trashed those interrogation videotapes, he told superiors that two CIA lawyers had signed off on it. One was Eatinger. In a Q&A at the Council on Foreign Relations just after Feinstein’s floor speech, Brennan told Andrea Mitchell that he is in no way trying to “thwart” the Senate. He denied that the CIA hacked into Senate computers, noting that it was beyond “the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.”

But is anything beyond the scope of reason for the CIA anymore? Shouldn’t someone have gone to jail now besides the guy who blew the whistle on waterboarding? It’s typical that Langley, which has bungled so much for decades, couldn’t even spy on the Senate properly without getting caught.



Maureen Dowd writes a column for the New York Times.
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