CIA Director John Brennan (from CSPAN broadcast of Council on Foreign Relations event)

The remarks, which Senator Dianne Feinstein delivered on the floor of the Senate, was one of the more significant statements given by a United States senator in recent history. They clarified the extent to which the Central Intelligence Agency has worked to interfere and even intimidate senators and their staff, as they have worked to complete and finalize a study on the agency’s rendition, detention and interrogation program that involved torture.

Feinstein declared, “How Congress and how this will be resolved will show whether the intelligence committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.” She called this a “defining moment,” and indeed it is because numerous Americans do not believe that Congress conducts appropriate oversight anymore. They have watched people like Feinstein herself and concluded that senators are far too willing to work with intelligence agency officials at the expense of challenging their abuses of authority and possibly illegal or criminal actions.

With regards to the 6,300-page study that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) produced,  let’s consider what the CIA has done. Personnel conducted searches of committee computers and a network. “This search,” according to Feinstein, “involved not only a search of documents provided to the committee but also a search of the standalone and walled off committee network drive containing the committee’s own internal work product and communications.”

The CIA conducted this search because it suspected staffers had a copy of a draft of an internal review prepared by former CIA director Leon Panetta that summarized documents provided to the committee for the study. Without sharing any allegations with senators, CIA Director John Brennan ordered “further forensic investigation of the committee network to learn more about activities of the oversight staff.”

Agency personnel also electronically removed documents, which staffers were supposed to be able to access, at least twice in 2010. They removed a copy of the internal Panetta review when they figured out that it had been provided to the committee as one of millions of documents made available.

Because the senate has a copy of this internal review (which proves the CIA has been disingenuous in its response to the Senate study by disputing certain conclusions), the acting counsel general of the CIA filed a crimes report with the Justice Department.

This top lawyer at the CIA has a conflict of interest. According to Feinstein, his past actions are implicated in the study.

“For most if not all of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, the now acting general counsel was a lawyer in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, the unit within which the CIA managed and carried out this program,” Feinstein explained. “From mid-2004 until the official termination of the detention and interrogation program in January 2009, he was the unit’s chief lawyer. He is mentioned by name more than 1,600 times in our study and now this individual is sending a crimes report to the Justice Department on the actions of congressional staff, the same congressional staff who researched and drafted a report that details how CIA officers including the acting general counsel himself provided inaccurate information to the Justice Department about the program.”

Threatening staffers with prosecution is an act of intimidation on the part of the CIA. As Feinstein made clear, the staffers did nothing unlawful by taking a copy of an internal review back to the secured spaces in the Hart Senate Office Building. They redacted specific information that needed to be protected, such as the names of non-supervisory CIA personnel and locations of CIA detention sites.

The CIA has a history of destroying evidence related to the rendition, detention and interrogation program. The CIA “previously withheld and destroyed information about its detention and interrogation program including its decision in 2005 to destroy interrogation videotapes over the objections of the Bush White House and the Director of National Intelligence.”

What the CIA has done very much appears to be in violation, as Feinstein said, of the separation of powers principles in the US Constitution, the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and Executive Order 12333, which prohibits domestic spying by the CIA.

But Brennan appeared at a Council on Foreign Relations event, which MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell moderated, and he maintained that the CIA had done nothing to “thwart” the committee’s efforts to release this report.

The CIA director, with a vexed smirk on his face, said, “As far as the allegations of CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s just beyond the scope of reason.”

Such a statement invites mockery and laughter. The CIA lied to members of Congress about interrogation methods that were being used. It deliberately misled the Justice Department on the nature of interrogation methods used against terrorism suspects. When a former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, began to talk on television about waterboarding and called it torture, the CIA encouraged a Justice Department investigation into the officer so that he could be prosecuted, put in jail and silenced. (It worked. The government found an instance where Kiriakou confirmed the name of an intelligence officer to a reporter and got him to plead guilty.)

Intelligence agency officials, current and former, have written books and participated in forums or speaking events where they give their own version of what happened with CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program. They have been misleading and lied, especially when they have dared to claim that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were not torture.

Revealingly, when Brennan was asked if he would resign if it was found he had overstepped his authority, he maintained his dismissive demeanor and said, while looking down at the floor, “When the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this sort of tremendous spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.” He was confident that the authorities would deal with allegations properly and, if he did something wrong, he would go to the president and explain what authorities had found. The president would decide whether he should resign.

Of course, one would expect nothing less from a man who rose to the position of CIA director despite the fact that he considered renditions—essentially kidnappings of terrorism suspects—to be “an absolutely vital tool” in the fight against terrorism. This is typical of someone who believes the US “has to take off the gloves” in the war on terror.

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This is the culture of impunity of Washington. If it was concluded that he had committed criminal violations, he would have a duty or obligation to step down, however, he believes he could go have a private meeting with President Barack Obama and Obama would understand that what he did was entirely justified. He would be protected from senators who may want the CIA to be held accountable for their actions, which they refuse to apologize for committing and will not explain to the Senate intelligence committee.

Brennan and the CIA are engaging in conduct they consciously believe they can get away with in Washington. It may stretch the boundaries of what is permissible, but they are confident that any attempt to coverup history will eventually be forgotten because nobody has the stomach to truly demand those involved be held responsible.

All of which is the cost of moving forward without looking backward. The Justice Department consciously chose not to prosecute current and former government officials.The investigation into the destruction of CIA torture tapes ended with no charges. In fact, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation through drugs that do not cause “permanent derangement” can still be used against detainees.

Even though the administration issued an Executive Order intended to discontinue the official use of torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the Obama administration effectively decriminalized torture when it determined that the perceived political costs of pursuing accountability might be too much for the president. And, when members of Congress allowed themselves to go along with this decision, they effectively ensured there would be this kind of a showdown.
A torture study, while it sets the record straight, is not justice. It may show the truth about officials, whose reputations depend on being able to lie about what they did. It will not help any terrorism suspects who were victims of torture and deserved to have their pain and suffering validated by prosecutions of these individuals who played key roles in authorizing torture.

It won’t make using the word torture when talking about this chapter of history uncontroversial either. When the Japanese waterboarded American prisoners of war, that was torture. The act of waterboarding did not change decades later when it was done to terrorism suspects by CIA officers. It was torture yet members of Congress and the media refuse to use appropriate language when recounting the CIA’s criminal misconduct.

Finally, some of the reaction to Feinstein’s remarks has been to call it hypocrisy. This is a senator who has used her position as chairman of the Senate intelligence committee to try and renew confidence in the National Security Agency after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures. She has dismissed outrage from Americans over the intrusive surveillance NSA is conducting on Americans’ communications and yet she has either ignored or sought to justify it in remarks. Yet, now because the CIA was violating the privacy of senate staffers and having them criminally investigated for daring to challenge the agency by taking control of a draft of an internal review, she feels she must speak out against this kind of surveillance.

This reaction is understandable. It should be admitted, however, that Feinstein did what any senator in her position should have done. That is what made it remarkable. Someone who seems to be complacent toward the intelligence community actually took a stand. (It’s exactly what this author had hoped to see but never thought would actually happen because this author did not believe Feinstein had the will to fight the CIA to ensure that even just parts of the torture study were declassified.)

Sen. Patrick Leahy was the only senator to take to the floor and show support for Feinstein. He said, “I’ve heard thousands of speeches on this floor. I cannot think of any speech by any member of either party as important as the one the senator from California just gave.”

He recalled how his first vote in the Senate was for the Church Committee report that detailed excesses of the CIA, “everything from assassinations to spying on those who were protesting the war in Vietnam.”

“If we do not stand up for protection of separation of powers and our ability to do oversight especially as conduct has happened that is all likelihood criminal conduct by the part of a government agency, than what do we stand for? We are supposed to be the conscience of a nation.”

Many Americans believe the Congress will stand for anything from the national security state. These Americans believe the intelligence agencies have such control over Congress that they can get anything. These Americans believe members of Congress are not independent and are complicit in their support of abuses of power, which they stand ready to defend when agency officials come under scrutiny. And these Americans stand by extremely skeptical that Feinstein and the rest of the Senate intelligence committee will follow through and get this torture study even partly declassified for the American people to read so they can know more of the truth of what the CIA did in this country’s name.