Salon: How The CIA Gets Away With It — Our Democracy Is Their Real Enemy
The inside, untold story of CIA’s efforts to mislead Congress — and the people — about torture will horrify you
On March 11, 2014, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein stepped to the well of the Senate to deliver a speech exposing in stark terms a struggle between congressional investigators and their oversight subject: the Central Intelligence Agency. Feinstein was an unlikely critic of the practices of the intelligence community. The wife of investment banker Richard C. Blum, who managed enormous capital investments in corporations serving the American defense and intelligence communities, Feinstein had distinguished herself among Senate Democrats as a staunch CIA defender. In her long service on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which she had chaired since 2009, Feinstein established close personal ties with key senior agency figures—championing the candidacy of former deputy director Stephen Kappes to head the agency after Barack Obama was elected.
Patiently and meticulously, Feinstein unfolded the string of events that led her committee to launch the most exhaustive congressional probe of a single CIA program in the nation’s history. “On December 6, 2007, a New York Times article revealed the troubling fact that the CIA had destroyed video tapes of some of the CIA’s first interrogations using so-called enhanced techniques,” she stated.
CIA director Michael Hayden had assured congressional overseers that they had no reason to be concerned: routine written field reports, what Hayden called CIA operational cables, had been retained. These documents, Hayden said, described “the detention conditions” of prisoners held by the CIA before it decided to shut down the program as well as the “day-to-day CIA interrogations.” Hayden offered the senators access to these cables to prove to them that the destruction of the tapes was not a serious issue. Moreover, he reminded them that the CIA program was a historical relic: in the fall of 2006 the Bush administration ended the CIA’s role as a jailer and sharply curtailed its program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs)—specifically eliminating techniques that most of the international community, including the United States in the period before and after the Bush presidency, had viewed as torture, such as waterboarding.
Nevertheless, the Senate committee had never looked deeply into this program, and Hayden’s decision to offer access to the cables opened the door to a careful study, which was accepted by then-chair Jay Rockefeller. Early in 2007, two Senate staffers spent many months reading the cables. By the time they had finished in early 2009, Feinstein had replaced Rockefeller as committee chair, and Barack Obama had replaced George W. Bush as president. Feinstein received the first staff report. It was “chilling,” she said. “The interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detention sites were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us.”
This first exploration of the dark side of CIA prisons and torture led committee members to recognize a serious failure in its oversight responsibilities. The committee resolved with near-unanimity (on a 14–1 vote) to launch a comprehensive investigation of the CIA program involving black sites and torture.
But the CIA was not simply going to acquiesce to a congressional probe into the single darkest and most controversial program in the organization’s history. Since it could not openly do battle with its congressional overseers, the agency turned to a series of tactics that it had honed over the difficult decades following the Church Committee inquiries of the mid-1970s. Throughout the subsequent decades, the CIA complained loudly about the burdens of oversight and accountability—while almost always getting its way. …