Editorial: Nation deserves answers on CIA conduct

Published March 12, 2014

America's image and security interests are still being hurt by the Central Intelligence Agency's detention and torture of suspected terrorists after 9/11. Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein charged this week that the CIA has interfered with Congress and possibly violated federal law, the Constitution and the prohibition against domestic spying by the agency — all in an attempt to whitewash the record and mislead the public about the government's mistreatment of prisoners. The CIA cannot be spying on the U.S. Senate, and President Barack Obama owes the nation an answer.

In her speech on the Senate floor, Feinstein described a well-organized scheme by the CIA to thwart an investigation by the appropriate Senate oversight committee by spying on its computers, lying and removing records, and later trying to intimidate Congress by referring the matter to federal prosecutors for criminal action.

The case stems from a long-awaited review by the committee into the CIA's detention program and its use of secret prisons and harsh interrogation techniques under President George W. Bush. The Senate became involved in 2007 after a report by the New York Times that the CIA had destroyed some videotapes of brutal interrogations. Then-CIA director Michael Hayden offered to allow the committee to examine internal cables on the procedures to quell any concerns the agency destroyed evidence.

By 2009, Feinstein said, the "staff report was chilling." As the Senate sought a broader review, the new CIA director, Leon Panetta, offered a deal: The CIA would provide records to Senate staff but at a CIA-leased facility away from Washington. The Senate complied — reluctantly — after assurances the CIA would provide a stand-alone computer system for congressional staff. In 2010, investigators discovered that some documents had been stripped from their computers. The CIA blamed technicians, then the White House (which the White House denied). After the staff found a critical internal CIA review of the detention program, which Feinstein said contained "troubling matters," that document also was removed by the CIA.

Feinstein said current CIA director John Brennan admitted in January to having searched congressional computers and to examining a stand-alone and walled-off network drive that contained the Senate staff's work product. Brennan denied some of those charges Tuesday. Feinstein also claimed the acting general counsel of the CIA asked the Justice Department to look into whether the congressional staffers committed any crimes. This is the same attorney, she noted, who for years served as the chief lawyer to the program overseeing the CIA's detention and interrogation practices.

This whole episode smacks of a cover-up, a government bullying operation and a lawless spying agency. Congress cannot perform its constitutional duty of overseeing the executive branch when the CIA can dictate the bounds of an investigation and starts investigating the Senate investigation. Obama needs to demand some answers and hold the CIA to account. And the administration should move quickly to release both the CIA's internal review of its detention program and the Senate report. It's time to open the blinds for the American people.