When Senator Dianne Feinstein took to the senate floor last year and accused the Central Intelligence Agency of spying on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), the very committee charged with oversight of the CIA, it marked the beginning of a scandal that could have brought down the CIA like nothing the American public has seen since the Church Committee in the mid-1970s.
Senator Feinstein remarked, “I have grave concerns that the CIA search may well have violated the separation of powers principles.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was even more explicit, saying, “Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it’s true. If it is, the legislative branch should declare war on the CIA.”
If the CIA was spying on the Senate oversight committee, and in this case removing files on enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) from review, then the agency should have been shaken to its foundation. But by early 2014, it was clear that the spooks on the 7thfloor were walking away clean. After such venom and hyperbole was slung against the CIA, why did the Senate, namely Feinstein, back down from their original accusations?
It starts with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s review of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, including what is colloquially known as “waterboarding”—used to extract information from captured detainees in the Global War on Terror. Acting in their oversight capacity, the Intelligence Committee conducted a review of the CIA’s interrogation methods for about five years. While many have decried the report as a biased and purely partisan effort to discredit Republicans, when news of the CIA spying on the Senate broke, it drew the ire of both the left and the right.
Feinstein and others had to fight the CIA tooth and nail just to gain access to the CIA’s internal EIT reports. Negotiating with the director of the CIA (first Panetta, then Brennan), the Senate was given access to around six million of the CIA’s internal EIT documents.
The reports were provided to the Senate on a secure computer network called the Rendition, Detention, Interrogation (RDI) network system, at a secure, off-site CIA building—probably in northern Virginia. The partisan aspect of the SSCI investigation into CIA-sponsored interrogation techniques becomes apparent when you take into account that there were two rooms within the CIA building for the SSCI staffers charged with the investigation. One room was for the Senate Majority members of the SSCI (Democrats at that time), and another room for for Senate minority members, the Republicans.
The SSCI should, in fact, be the least partisan committee in the Senate, its oversight duties so critical to maintaining a functioning and effective intelligence apparatus. However, what we see here is that the SSCI majority members were trying to manipulate the EIT report from the onset, conjuring up conclusions based on their previously held assumptions of what the CIA did or did not do.
Like any other building that stores America’s secrets, classified information was not to leave that room and was only to be used by the Senate in compiling their report.
Things went sideways when two Senate staffers discovered CIA documents which they had been erroneously given access to. Those documents included copies of handwritten notes and a spreadsheet which listed the contents of every EIT video the CIA recorded, including some which may have been destroyed. At least one SSCI staffer was fired from the investigation when he was discovered to be smuggling a camera into the CIA’s secured building.