Thursday, March 13, 2014


It's sad to see the CIA fighting with its Senate overseer, the Select Committee on Intelligence [SSCI]. They should be working together, for the security of us all. Instead, they are rushing toward a constitutional confrontation driven by increasing mutual suspicion. Here's a good timeline.

The apparent issue is whether the committee properly obtained and can make use of some documents prepared in 2009 and 2010 -- the "internal Panetta review" -- that has statements conflicting with the CIA's position on a draft SSCI report. That narrow issue raises important legal questions for both sides.

Those questions, however, cannot be separated from the broader context, where institutional, political, and personal factors loom large. The executive branch and its legislative overseers are in a permanent power struggle, even though the congressional intelligence panels have largely in recent years been defenders of the intelligence community. [Sen. Feinstein has been criticized by many of her fellow liberals for defending CIA drone attacks and NSA data collection.] But with evidence that the CIA searched computers assigned to the committee and sought criminal charges against staff, the SSCI has shifted into attack mode.

Whatever the facts are, they also are now viewed through a political prism. The committee launched its investigation of Bush era rendition and interrogation programs but later split over how much to criticize them. Republicans refused to support the still-classified 6,300 page report because it went too far. Thus, they have political incentives to side with the agency over the disputed documents, just as Democrats have institutional and political reasons to press ahead.

While Sen. Feinstein feels personally affronted by executive branch withholding of documents, Director Brennan has his own reasons for defending his agency, its people, and their morale.

It may turn out that this whole flap was the result of innocent human error, but both sides have now hardened their positions and escalated their concerns. They both ought to see ways to de-escalate.

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