The U.S. intelligence community has been playing with fire with its capability to tap into the digital lives of just about anyone, anywhere. There's also no small amount of evidence that civil liberties have been scorched in the process.
But few actions have been as self-destructive as the CIA's alleged snooping and ham-handed dealings with one of its strongest allies, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
It's failings resulted in Feinstein's unprecedented speech from the floor of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday in which she accused the CIA of criminal conduct by spying on her committee. Specially, she's accusing the agency of illegally searching through a special bank of computers set aside for lawmakers — a network used for looking into classified material, no less. Investigators were using the computers for an ongoing probe into charges that the CIA used torture as part of terror investigations during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Feinstein, one who rarely airs dirty laundry on Capitol Hill and has been quick to defend intelligence agencies against criticism of their practices, in this case sharply rebuked the CIA. She said she had "grave concerns that the CIA's search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution."
By all indications, she has cause to be concerned. We all do.
Feinstein alleges that the CIA was possibly trying to intimidate committee staff, just before the panel was about to go public with its findings about the handling of terror investigations and the use of such techniques as waterboarding.
The CIA responded by lashing out at Feinstein and essentially accusing the committee of stealing its documents, namely a highly sensitive internal CIA review of its interrogation practices. CIA chief John Brennan rebutted Feinstein's charge, saying that when the facts were known, "I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong."
But in the arena of truth and defending the public's right to the know, the CIA maintains little credibility. Its complaints are further undermined by the fact that the lawyer accused of trying to intimidate the committee over the investigation of harsh interrogation techniques was himself directly involved in those programs. Feinstein said acting general counsel Robert Eatinger was referenced more than 1,600 times in the committee's unpublished report.
These are not the first concerns. The CIA also has been accused of destroying videotapes of some of the initial enhanced interrogations of 9/11 suspects, discouraging transparency by dumping huge volumes of unindexed data on Senate investigators — material that has taken years to sift through — and secretly taking back some 900 pages of documents after handing them over to the committee. The alleged snooping through Senate computers by the CIA was, essentially, the last straw, prompting Feinstein to take her complaints public.
The CIA has referred its complaints to the Justice Department for investigation. But making these charges part of a criminal investigation may only slow disclosure of the committee's report, which is likely the CIA's preference anyhow. The best outcome is publication of the complete report and the disputed CIA internal review, which would allow the public to make up its own mind about who is more to blame in this unsettling blowup over spying and our nation's oversight of it.