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Salon misses the point: Feinstein’s speech on the CIA is a big deal

The crisis in relations between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee has blown up with Sen. Diane Feinstein’s speech in the Senate last week, accusing the CIA of breaking the law and the constitution. The clash has put an unwelcome spotlight on the role of the White House, where Obama is refusing to intervene while still backing CIA director John Brennan.

Feinstein, chair of the Committee and until now the security agencies’ staunchest defender, has concluded the CIA is bent on intimidating the committee and is determined to evade Congressional oversight. The antagonism has been building for some years while the senate committee compiled a report on the CIA’s use of torture under the Bush administration.

She confirmed publicly that the CIA had been monitoring computers used by senate staff, and that documents detailing evidence of torture had been removed from the network. The Guardian reported: “In her speech, Feinstein described repeated attempts by the CIA to frustrate the work of Senate investigators, including providing the committee staff with a ‘document dump’ of millions of non-indexed pages, requiring years of work to sort through – a necessity, Feinstein said, after former senior CIA official Jose Rodriguez destroyed nearly 100 videotapes showing brutal interrogations of detainees in CIA custody.”

Without naming him, Feinstein said CIA acting general counsel Robert Eatinger had been closely involved in the torture program. Eatinger had reported her staff’s removal of a CIA document from a classified facility to the Justice Department, a move she called an intimidation tactic, but late last week the senate struck back by removing him as general counsel and confirming his replacement.

The CIA has always carried out dirty tricks abroad, but is constitutionally prevented from spying within the US. Its operatives have always acted under the assumption there would be no consequences for illegal actions, while Americans have been led to believe that their undercover operations were necessary for defense against the country’s enemies. The security agencies were emboldened by Bush after the 9/11 attack – the impact of which is now wearing off – to abandon international and constitutional legalities.

Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who publicly criticized the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, told Amy Goodman: “People always say, ‘After 9/11, everything changed.’ Well, it did change. The president, on the evening of 9/11, said, ‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say. We’re going to kick some ass.’ … Well, they took some prisoners in Afghanistan, and the first person tortured was John Walker Lindh, an American citizen.”

The legislature is finally responding to five years of obstruction from the agency over reporting the extent of torture it carried out because the spying has been turned on them, after senate aides discovered internal memos contradicting Brennan’s official rebuttal of the Intelligence Committee’s findings. However, the committee’s demand that the senate report be published represents a threat to the CIA’ s ideological justification for its activities.

Is the clash mere “hypocrisy, posturing, face-saving and obfuscation,” as Natasha Lennard claims in Salon? Or is Washington Post correspondent Eugene Robinson closer to the mark when he says: “This is not just a bunch of rhetoric. It’s a very big deal.”

Whatever Feinstein’s motives – and we can agree with Edward Snowden when he calls her hypocritical – by campaigning to make public the activities of the security agencies, other members of the senate committee like Mark Udall and Ron Wyden are challenging authoritarians within those agencies who want to override popular sovereignty.

Robinson notes the expansion of the security state: “Look at how the CIA’s role has expanded to include what most of us would consider military operations, including flying and firing armed drones. Look at the breathtaking revelations about the NSA’s collection of phone-call data. Look at how the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, in a series of secret rulings, has stretched the Fourth Amendment and the Patriot Act beyond all recognition.”

The paralysis of Congress by the Republicans has created a political space for the extension of executive power and security agencies to assert their will against the legislative bodies charged with representing the people’s interests. However, Snowden’s revelations have changed the political context by alerting the public to the extent of state surveillance in the US and worldwide. Feinstein’s speech is significant not so much because of the constitutional principles involved but because, despite her previous support of the NSA, her accusations resonate with the public which has become aware of the fact that repression abroad will come home to be used against Americans.

Now the crisis has reached the White House. Although Obama is trying to stay aloof, senators on the Intelligence Committee are challenging him to defend legislative oversight and to declassify the committee’s report. His administration is also refusing to hand over documents in its possession which relate to the torture program.

Some of my readers have asked why I would make so much of this conflict. After all, the senate and the security agencies are all part of the same capitalist state, they say; differences between them are merely tactical, they agree on the fundamentals of capitalist rule.

But these conflicts are one form in which the class struggle is being fought out in America today, a struggle to defend popular sovereignty. Far from being autonomous, state bureaucracies reflect the tensions within society, refracted through the particular configuration of the US state. Increasingly, protest is uniting political demands with economic issues, since divisions within the political elite are preventing legislation that might ameliorate growing poverty.

Even “managed democracy” needs to maintain the illusion of reflecting the popular will.  While still dominated by the corporate elite, the state’s fragmentation is undermining its legitimacy in the eyes of Americans.


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Filed under CIA, Homeland Security, Mark Udall, Obama, political analysis, Republicans, US policy