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Sen. Dianne Feinstein: The woman who could rein in the CIA

The CIA and senators who oversee it have long had a rocky relationship. But allegations of spying Tuesday could be a ‘defining moment,’ says Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. Dianne Feinstein is not to be trifled with. As the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, the senior senator from California has staunchly defended America’s intelligence community even as the world has railed against its mass surveillance of phone records. So when she takes to the Senate floor to say that the CIA “may well have violated” the Constitution in interfering with her committee’s investigation of the agency, that’s a serious allegation.

It may also signal more muscular senatorial oversight of America’s spymasters, a function that has weakened over the decades since the 1975 Church Committee – led by the late Sen. Frank Church of Idaho – investigated the country’s intelligence agencies in the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam War.

“After several decades of erosion of legislative oversight power and authority, a powerful committee chair is saying ‘That’s enough,’ ” says Richard Baker, co-author of the new book, “The American Senate: An Insider’s History.” The oversight of US intelligence agencies is a crucial congressional function, and this faceoff is “extremely weighty,” says the Senate historian emeritus.

Senator Feinstein, he says, “enjoys a huge amount of respect and is very thoughtful…. If somebody’s going to draw the line, she’s the one to do it.”

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She certainly did that on Tuesday. In an unusual and detailed speech, she parted the curtains on a committee investigation of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program begun in 2002 – under President George W. Bush – and which is now defunct.

During the course of the committee’s investigation, which was conducted on separate computers for Senate staff at a secure location in northern Virginia, the CIA multiple times denied committee staff access to documents that the agency had previously provided, according to Feinstein. It also conducted a search of committee computers at the facility, she says. The matter has since been referred to the Justice Department for investigation.

Feinstein spoke out Tuesday to “set the record straight” in the face of various articles in the media about the investigation. She said, for instance, that her staff’s removal of printouts of a CIA internal review of the program, called “the Panetta review,” was perfectly legal and done according to security protocol. Although she acknowledged that taking a copy of the review violated an agreement with the CIA not to remove anything without prior clearance.

The agency’s interference with the committee’s work “may well have violated the separation-of-powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution,” she said, and she accused the CIA of “intimidating” staff. CIA Director John Brennan on Tuesday denied the agency was trying to stop the committee’s work or that it had hacked into the committee’s computers.

Senate expert Baker points to decades of mistrust between the CIA and Senate oversight. “The CIA and the Senate investigating committees have had a rather rocky relationship ever since the days of the Church Committee in 1975,” he explained.

Perhaps with the exception of the Iran-Contra investigation during the Reagan presidency, the Senate has shied away from the massive investigations that characterized the Church era, according to Baker. They were too time consuming, required large staffs, and took place in highly partisan conditions.

Instead, senators have turned to outside commissions, such as the bipartisan 9/11 Commission that looked at how the US failed to connect the dots that led to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

It’s not clear how this complaint will turn out, but it would help strengthen Feinstein’s case if she had bipartisan backing. Senators in her own party are standing behind her. Two of the Senate’s Republican hawks, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, also spoke out.

“If true, this is Richard Nixon stuff,” Senator Graham said, suggesting those responsible should be fired, according to the Los Angeles Times. Senator McCain said there may be a need for an independent investigation. If Feinstein’s allegation’s stand up, there must be “repercussions,” he said.

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But several other Republicans were reserving judgment, including the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Intelligence, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. “There’s disagreement as to what the actual facts are,” he said, even as CIA Director Brennan urged senators to “take their time to make sure that they don’t overstate what they claim.”

In closing, Feinstein called this a “defining moment” for the committee’s oversight role. “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.”

That’s a strong statement from the California senator, who, according to McCain, he wouldn’t try to “second guess.”