CIA and Senate at war over torture docs, spying on lawmakers

Senator Diane Feinstein took to the floor of the Senate yesterday to detail a long simmering conflict between the CIA and the Senate.

The clash has constitutional, and institutional ramifcations. What's clear is that both sides were playing hardball when it came to a fight over documents that provided painstaking detail of the CIA torture and rendition programs.

Associated Press lays out the basics of the argument:

HOW IT STARTED: It begins with questions of torture. The Senate Intelligence Committee in 2009 began a wide-ranging investigation into CIA interrogation techniques during the Bush administration, including waterboarding of terrorism suspects at secret overseas prisons. The resulting 6,300-page report, completed in 2012, has never been publicly released. The current dispute centers on whether the CIA impeded the Senate's investigation, and whether the Senate improperly obtained or handled CIA documents along the way.

THE DOCUMENT DUMP: The CIA responded to the Senate investigation with a giant "document dump," to use the words of Feinstein, who chairs the committee. Under a carefully negotiated agreement, the agency handed over 6.2 million pages of unindexed material to Senate investigators, who plowed through it on CIA-supplied computers set up at a secure site in northern Virginia. The ground rules were supposed to keep the CIA from meddling in the Senate's investigation and its computer files, and to keep Senate investigators from seeing things they shouldn't.

A VANISHING ACT: As they plowed through the CIA papers, Senate investigators noticed that hundreds of pages of documents they had once been able to access on the computers had inexplicably vanished. After Feinstein protested, the CIA promised in 2010 it wouldn't remove any more documents or meddle in the investigators' work. The CIA even apologized. That was supposed to fix the problem.

A VANISHING ACT, PART II: Among the documents that Senate investigators reviewed later in 2010 were draft versions of a key internal CIA paper Feinstein called the "internal Panetta review" (named for former CIA Director Leon Panetta). This document is a big deal because it acknowledged "significant CIA wrongdoing," according to Feinstein. There's a mystery here: Senators aren't sure if this document was provided on purpose by the CIA, accidentally by the CIA, or arrived courtesy of a CIA whistleblower. At some point in 2010, most versions of the Panetta document vanished from the computers the Senate investigators were using.

Feinstein accuses the agency of spying on the Senate because the special computers supplied by the CIA were apparently scanned by the spooks looking for copies of the Panetta report. They also hacked the Senate's stand alone computer for the same reason. CIA Director Brennan says, "The CIA was in no way spying" on the committee or the Senate," and that they weren't trying to "block anything."

The Senator also claims that some of the conclusions reached by the Senate and objected to by the agency were actually part of the now-disappeared Panetta report. Feinstein asked the $64,000 question: "How can the CIA's official response to our study stand factually in conflict with its own internal review?"

As for the future?

How to get to the bottom of this? The Justice Department is being asked to investigate potential wrongdoing on both sides of the equation. The CIA's inspector general sent over allegations of possible criminal violations by CIA personnel. And the CIA's acting general counsel sent over a report raising questions about the committee staff's actions. Feinstein calls that "a potential effort to intimidate this staff."

How much oversight is too much? Does the agency have a right to protect its methods and sources from the prying, eyes of Senate staffers? It depends whether you think the report is a political document or not. The CIA obviously believes the Democrats are out to get them, to punish them for acts they believed were legal. The Democrats think that CIA activities must be exposed to prevent the excesses from happening again.

Feinstein says that the Senate will release a declassified version of the report soon. It is certain to reignite debate over the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the CIA to extract information from terrorists, and begin calls for the arrest of George Bush and Dick Cheney all over again.