Watching Dianne Feinstein tear into the Central Intelligence Agency on the Senate floor the other day brought to mind a 1970s-era television commercial about a margarine supposedly indistinguishable from butter.
“Chiffon’s so delicious, it fooled even you, Mother Nature,” says the narrator.
An editorial writer specializing in politics, the budget and other domestic issues, she also writes a weekly column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.
“Oh, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” she replies, her voice becoming steely as she raises her arms to summon thunder and lightning.
Seriously, CIA? How many friends do you have left on Capitol Hill? It’s not nice to mess with Sen. Feinstein (who, incidentally, bears an unnerving resemblance to the ad lady). Even more important, it’s really dumb. In the hostile, post-Edward Snowden world, the California Democrat and chair of the Senate intelligence committee has been one of the staunchest defenders of U.S. spy agencies.
But dumb seems to be the oxymoronic watchword of the intelligence community these days. Its components have been behaving like their own worst enemy. They operate under the compulsion of two understandable, ingrained instincts that combine to do the agencies — and, ultimately, the country — a disservice.
The first instinct is the drive to collect as much information as possible, by whatever means permissible. Of course. Their job is to gather intelligence, not leave it on the table. The painful lesson of 9/11 ensues from failing to know information, share it with colleagues and do something about it.
But a countervailing imperative counsels against exercising power to the maximum extent possible — or beyond. The intelligence community finds itself in such an embattled state today because of the sordid legacy of its “enhanced interrogation” program, which has provoked the CIA’s mud fight with Feinstein, and the contours of the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance activities. In both cases, the agencies stumbled in part because they overstepped.
Not just legal bounds, although, especially in the case of torture, those too. But also limits of prudence, dictated by what society will tolerate, either in terms of cruelty (waterboarding) or intrusiveness (vacuuming up metadata, eavesdropping on foreign leaders). Just because you can doesn’t mean you should — even if your political bosses are pushing you.
Layer on the other ingrained instinct: to prioritize secrecy at all costs. Here, the intelligence community purports to have learned from its mistakes: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Daily Beast that the intelligence community would have been better off disclosing the surveillance program itself.
“Had we been transparent about this from the outset [and explained] why we have to do it, and here are the safeguards . . . we wouldn’t have had the problem we had,” Clapper said.
Good, if hard to take from the man who chose the “least untruthful” answer about telephone metadata collection. But, again, the intelligence community has had difficulty practicing what Clapper preached.
Feinstein’s furious floor statement depicts a CIA that, from the outset of the Senate intelligence committee inquiry into interrogation practices, has treated it more like opposing counsel in a fight-to-the-death litigation battle than a co-equal branch of government with a legitimate oversight role.
The CIA dumped documents, then mysteriously made them disappear from Senate computers. Then the agency made the dunderheaded move of investigating the committee’s computer system to determine how it acquired certain documents — sensitive not because they threatened to expose sources and methods but because they belied the CIA’s public statements.
The coup de grace was sending a “crimes report” to the Justice Department about the Senate staff’s activities in obtaining classified information. On the Lawfare blog, Jack Goldsmith noted the low trigger — “possible violations” — for referral to Justice.
But good grief, lodging a complaint against the very folks who are investigating you? The rules are structured to give the CIA little discretion about making such referrals, but if ever there were an instance where discretion was advised, this might be it.
A few more things to understand about this mess: Every bureaucracy operates under the impulse to protect itself and its own. The CIA feels particularly embattled, and no more so than about the interrogation program.
Meanwhile, clashing personalities play a role. The CIA and Senate staffs are fed up with one another after years of tangling on this probe. At the top, Feinstein and CIA Director John Brennan are locked in a can-this-marriage-be-saved union: two similarly bristly personalities disinclined to back down once provoked.
But here’s the ineluctable fact: This is not a marriage of equals. One has oversight jurisdiction over the other. Brennan fools — or fools with — Feinstein at his peril.