CIA Pulled Out Of The Shadows With Feinstein's Charge

Sen. Dianne Feinstein accused CIA staff of improperly accessing Senate computers on Tuesday. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times and ex-Rep. Jane Harman about the conflict.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

By its nature, the Central Intelligence Agency operates in the shadows. Even the members of Congress who oversee the agency rarely speak publicly about the agency's activities. So it was an extraordinary moment when the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee took to the floor of the Senate this week to condemn the CIA for snooping into its files.

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SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate. I have received neither.

RATH: That's Sen. Dianne Feinstein. For the last five years, members of her staff had been looking into the controversial detention and interrogation program the agency ran after 9/11. In a 38-minute speech, Feinstein claimed the CIA had blocked her investigation and even searched staffers' computers, possibly violating the law.

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FEINSTEIN: I have grave concerns that the CIA's search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution.

RATH: Some have gone so far as to call this a constitutional crisis. Sen. Feinstein said it was a defining moment for the legislative branch's oversight of the CIA.

Mark Mazzetti is a national security correspondent for The New York Times and the author of "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth." He says the Senate investigation started in 2009, just after President Obama came into office, officially ending the controversial detention and interrogation program.

MARK MAZZETTI: And what the Senate basically set out to do was tell the history of the program and answer questions like, did any of these interrogation methods work? Did they produce any valuable intelligence? And exactly who was telling who, what during this whole process inside the government about this program?

RATH: Even without the benefit of the report, we do know a fair amount about the program. What do we know?

MAZZETTI: Well, we know, at this point, the methods that the CIA used to try to extract information from al-Qaida detainees. Some of those methods included waterboarding, exposure to extreme temperatures, use of sleep deprivation and other methods that were approved by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.

We also know where most, if not all of the secret prisons the CIA had, where they were located. There were prisons in Thailand, in Romania, in Jordan and other places where the CIA had basically made a deal with the local governments in order to keep detainees.

RATH: So President Obama takes office in 2009. The detention and interrogation program officially ends at that point and the Senate begins this investigation into the CIA program. What was the relationship like between the CIA and the congressional investigators?

MAZZETTI: I mean, I'd say it was pretty fraught from the beginning. A deal was struck between Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and CIA director Leon Panetta in order for them to get these documents. But the CIA was not making anyone available to be interviewed in person in part because there was this ongoing investigation into actual criminal activities in the program.

The other problem was that the Republicans on the committee pulled out of this investigation early on in part because they began to think that it was going to be very one-sided, it was going to be an effort to smear the Bush administration. I think it should be noted that that's really what so much of this is about. It's a fight over who writes the history and how this very controversial period of American history is framed.

RATH: So you mentioned the relationship between the CIA and this congressional investigation. It's been a fraught since the beginning, but still we've not heard anything like what we heard this week. And however you describe Sen. Feinstein, nobody would call her a flamethrower when it comes to stuff like this.

MAZZETTI: No. I mean, she's been an enormously supportive of intelligence agencies during her time as chairwoman of the intelligence committee. Really, I mean, all of the backroom jostling I described pales in comparison to what's happened in the last few months where the CIA came to believe or think that maybe the intelligence committee had gained unauthorized access to parts of CIA computers and carried out a search of the computers used by the staff.

And therefore, the staff turning around and alleging that the CIA was spying on them. And that was what Sen. Feinstein earlier this week was talking about, this really constitutional issue of separation of powers and oversight and whether the CIA is trying to thwart an investigation by its congressional overseers.

RATH: Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times.

Jane Harman served as one of those congressional overseers of the CIA. She's a former congresswoman and held a leading position on the House Intelligence Committee in the time after 9/11. I asked her if, while she served, the CIA provided enough information for Congress to keep a check on the country's spies.

JANE HARMAN: Well, it's an uneven story. The answer is yes and no. Certainly when Leon Panetta was the director of the CIA, he was very forthcoming. I think his successors have had a harder time.

RATH: And so has it varied dramatically from director to director or between administrations?

HARMAN: Yes. Well, it - you know, all of this is personal. It varies with the personalities on Capitol Hill. It varies with whether it's campaign season or not. It varies with the subject matter. And it certainly varies with who the director of CIA is. Institutionally, this should be a very forthcoming relationship.

I think the country benefits when there are checks and balances over what our intelligence activities are. We need to protect classified information. But we also need to be sure that what the Founding Fathers and Mothers designed for this country, which is checks and balances on unfettered executive power operate.

RATH: Well, with the restrictions on what can be released, do you think that the American people will ever have a full accounting of what the CIA did after 9/11?

HARMAN: Well, I think what Dianne Feinstein was - is trying to do is give an accounting. When you say full accounting, I think that there will be classified portions of that Senate report if it's ever released. And I think that's OK. I think what she intends is to understand that chapter and to learn from it.

And certainly, I was one who, then as ranking member, wrote a letter since declassified to the General Council of the CIA questioning whether there had been any form of White House review over the interrogation practices that I had just been briefed on and cautioning the CIA not to destroy any videotapes, which I'd heard had been made.

And we later learned that the videotapes were destroyed. And I still don't know. And I don't know whether we will ever learn about what the White House role was in deciding what kinds of interrogation practices would occur in the first term of Bush 43.

RATH: Based on the charges that Sen. Feinstein made, can you talk about what the legal implications would be here for the CIA? People are talking about violations of federal law and the Constitution.

HARMAN: I don't know what they might be. I think this has to play out. Unfortunately, it's distracting attention from important activities that the Senate and House Intelligence Committee should be focused on and that our intelligence community should be focused on. I can't think of a more dangerous time in recent memory. And if we have our intelligence community distracted by things like this, we really put the country at risk. And that worries me a great deal.

RATH: Former Congresswoman Jane Harman. She's now the president of the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. CIA Director John Brennan has denied Sen. Feinstein's charges, and the Justice Department is now investigating.

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