Sometimes, truth is stranger than Mad magazine. And SOMEtimes, circumstances can be weird enough to convert even our own Senator What, Me Worry into a raging civil libertarian.
On Tuesday, California's Dianne Feinstein took the floor of the Senate to express her dismay and indignation at the clandestine tactics of the CIA in resisting her Intelligence Committee's oversight of the spy agency. That Committee, which she chairs, has for years been trying to conduct a proper inquiry into CIA interrogation programs, post-9/11.
In an earlier chapter (circa 2007), the spooks destroyed several videos of detainees under tor ? sorry Mr. former VP ? aggressive, enhanced, inhumane, and abusive questioning. They claimed at the time that they were not destroying evidence because they retained documents describing those cases. And as we all know, a paper is worth a thousand pics.
This time, the controversy involves how the Feinstein staff would get access to some 6.2 million pages of documents that described those operations. Secrecy was paramount, because these are papers whose warts are their best features. They detail many gruesome incidents of rendition and, yes, torture committed in the name of freedom. Apparently, what they don't reveal is much in the way of actual, useful intel.
Now, on one level, you might think that the GOP could just buy popcorn and jostle for ringside seats for this Separation of Powers slugfest, between two Dem-controlled Executive and Legislative bodies. But what adds further spice to this bi-partisan brawl is both that it centers on sordid conduct during the Bush years, and many of the senior Agency players are still in-place and vulnerable. Their interest in retaining their freedom far exceeds any temporizing about Party affiliations or loyalties.
So, private negotiations were conducted, and it was agreed that Senate Committee staff would get access to those reams of reports, mostly in electronic form, at a safe house location in northern Virginia. The data would be transferred to computers provided by the Agency, and firewalled away from its sources at Langley. Cooperation was minimal, at best, as documents arrived in random order and had to be organized by the unlucky staffers. You know those refrigerator magnets of individual letters that can be unscrambled into words? It was a little like that, only a lot less entertaining.
Behind the firewall, Agency representatives (contractors ? hmm. What could possibly go wrong?) madly bustled to read those docs before they were pitched over the wall. Many arrived with various claims of privilege attached, and, given the Agency's track record, it's fair to ask how many didn't survive the review, at all. By accident, of course. Over the course of several years, they have been culled, and analyzed, and assembled into what we're told is a classified, 6300-page scathing review of CIA practices.
But wait ? there's more. One of the docs that the staffers received was the CIA's own review of what those materials portend. It is called the "Panetta review," for future reference. The staffers say they got it inadvertently from the Agency ? or perhaps by CIA whistleblower(!).
The Agency claims it was hacked, through the firewall of its own making. Either way ? oops. The Panetta review document has been spirited-out of the safe house and is kept in an actual safe somewhere in the bowels of the Capitol. Remarkably, it makes reference to materials that were never provided to the Committee. It also reaches similarly serious conclusions about wrongdoing by Agency personnel.
Why, you might reasonably ask, did the staffers feel a need to remove that particular document from its review site? That answer is chilling, even for this frosty tale. Staffers had noted that significant files were disappearing from the hard drives in the safe house ? all traces removed, vanished. With Mr. Snowden otherwise accounted-for, suspicion fell on the CIA in the biggest WTF development of this sordid saga (to-date). It really is the separation-of-powers follies ? the overseers surveilled by the overseen in a huge challenge to our notions of who's allowed to do what, and to whom, within our government (all of whom are working for ? who, again? I've lost track).
In now-typical fashion, the CIA first denied knowledge, citing likely staffer negligence in those disappearances. They then fell back to blaming the IT guys, also contractors with that safe insulation layer 'twixt themselves and anyone who 'matters' within the Agency. Finally, they copped to the deletions of more than 900 documents in 2010. Yes, they had in fact infiltrated to Committee's computers ? but for an excellent reason: Executive Privilege. The President made 'em do it. And they had the temerity to demand that the Committee return the 'purloined' Panetta review document that had escaped their processes.
That was apparently too much even for DiFi, who has been a too-staunch supporter of NSA surveillance of the rest of us. The shoe is on her foot ? and it's a hard pinch. In a harsh, 4000-word rebuke delivered on the Senate floor she expressed her belated outrage with born-again religious fervor. Three uber-serious concerns animated her speech:
One: The Panetta review document, that both refers to documents-not-provided, and admits to numerous misdeeds that the Agency has disputed publicly;
Two: The CIA search of the Senate staff computers, and removal of 900+ previously produced, particularly damaging documents, and
Three: that the CIA has contacted DOJ federal prosecutors to ask for a criminal investigation of how the Senate staffers got the Panetta review. In colloquial parlance, I believe that's called intimidation.
To her considerable credit, DiFi has gone public in a ballistic manner, instead of shrinking back from this pattern of alleged misdeeds and bullying. CIA Chief Brennan, caught in mid pants-drop, has issued a strong, if standard-issue denial.
There is much, Much more to come on this issue, folks. The Senator is right when she says that this strikes at the heart of our system of governance, our checks-and-balances. If proven-out, those violations simply cannot be tolerated. They need to be stomped-on with both feet, the better to deter such misconduct in the future. Even the parts of the saga that are not in serious dispute are Mad mag-worthy.
I'm only sorry that she waited as long as she has to go the mattresses in public view. I also hope that she sees the apparent linkages between these misdeeds and those that are sure to follow, whenever government has too much power to snoop ? and then inevitably oversteps even those lax limits. I hope we have a Convert, and an important ally in the ongoing push-back to retake our privacy.