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Dianne Feinstein is no bomb thrower

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 1202 GMT (2002 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. Feinstein accuses CIA of covertly removing documents from her staff's computers
  • Bergen: Feinstein longtime CIA supporter, so her statements aren't easily dismissed
  • Her staff's report disputes CIA claims that coercive interrogations yielded useful info
  • Bergen: White House should step up and get summary of 6,000-page report released

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein is not a bomb thrower.

As the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee she has, for instance, been a stalwart public defender of the National Security Agency's controversial bulk collection of phone data in the United States.

That is why the verbal hand grenade she threw on the Senate floor on Tuesday is a device sufficiently explosive that it may represent the largest rupture between Congress and the CIA since the Church committee hearings of the mid-1970s, in which CIA officials were summoned to testify publicly about the agency's dirty tricks, such as its plan to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

In an angry speech, Feinstein asserted that the CIA has violated federal laws by covertly removing classified documents from her committee's computers as it pursued a multiyear investigation of the CIA's interrogation and detention programs .

Feinstein said that four years ago the CIA removed hundreds of pages of documents that were being reviewed by her staff on computers at a CIA facility set up for the Senate staff's use in Virginia.

Feinstein says CIA spied on Senate computers

In 2009, Feinstein, a Democrat from California, assumed chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which provides oversight on all 16 of the U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA. From that position Feinstein has often sided with the CIA on issues that are important to the agency, for instance, defending the CIA's use of armed drones to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen.

Senator to Sochi goers: Watch your backs
Feinstein: CIA searched our computers

If Feinstein's allegation about the CIA search of her committee's computers is correct, such an intrusion would likely violate laws that prevent the CIA from conducting domestic surveillance, not to mention that it would constitute a potential violation of the separation of powers.

Walking with the help of a cane after a recent fall on black ice, CIA Director John Brennan made a rare public speech Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations in which he denied the charge. "As far as the allegations of CIA hacking into Senate computers -- nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn't do that."

This dispute between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA is, in fact, part of a much larger dispute about the Intelligence Committee's investigation of the agency's post-9/11 secret overseas prisons housing al Qaeda detainees and the CIA interrogation program for those prisoners, some of whom were subjected to coercive techniques such as waterboarding.

The yet-to-be released 6,300-page report by the Senate Intelligence Committee pours cold water on CIA claims that coercive interrogations yielded a great deal of useful information about al Qaeda plots and saved lives.

In fact, according to one U.S. official familiar with the report, when so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" were used on one of Osama bin Laden's captured couriers, Hassan Ghul, they were actually counterproductive. Ghul was cooperative before these techniques were used, but he stopped talking after he was subjected to coercive interrogations.

The official said the CIA also misled President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney about the efficacy of these coercive techniques.

The CIA has prepared its own secret 122-page rebuttal of the Senate report.

The Senate report also undercuts the claim that the hunt for bin Laden was helped by detainees in CIA custody who were subjected to coercive interrogations and that led the agency to focus on one of bin Laden's couriers, a notion that was popularized in the Oscar-nominated film "Zero Dark Thirty."

Feinstein released a statement in 2012 saying, "The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the Osama bin Laden courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover the courier's identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques. ... Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program."

If any good can come of this dispute one can only hope that a 300-page summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report is released in some declassified form so the American public and the world can finally get a better sense of how useful the CIA detention and interrogation programs really were.

To get this longstanding controversy resolved, the Obama White House should show some real leadership on the issue and step in to push all sides for the release -- at the very least -- of a declassified version of the 300-page summary of the Senate report as well as a similarly declassified version of the CIA's rebuttal.

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