Feinstein vs. CIA Fight Points Up Need for A New 'Church Committee'

This week we have seen a dramatic break in what till now has seemed the united front between Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein and the intelligence community. Feinstein has backed the NSA's vast global surveillance apparatus but now says the CIA has spied on her committee, hacked its computers, and tried to intimidate its staff, all as part of a bid to block or blunt the release of a report on the use of torture to obtain information in the post-9/11 era. Which means that it's time for President Barack Obama to create a commission to investigate and rein in a critical part of any government in the 21st century before its reputation is beyond salvage.

Clearly, if what Feinstein is charging is accurate, her system of oversight has been thoroughly penetrated, indeed turned inside out, by the folks whom she and the Intelligence Committee are supposed to be overseeing. The oversight committee's system may have been penetrated by hacking, but with the subjects of its oversight able to roam throughout the committee's secret files, we have to expect that, as a result, all of the relationships and techniques by which the committee tries to keep tabs on the intelligence agencies within its purview have been compromised. She didn't just learn this in the last week, yet she has long opposed the creation of a separate Senate investigative committee. In any event, one has to assume that the Senate as an institution has been penetrated and compromised.

Yet a famed Senate investigative committee of the 1970s, the so-called Church Committee, on which my old friend and boss Senator Gary Hart served before becoming a founding member of the oversight committee Feinstein now chairs, offers a model for wide-ranging inquiry into potential intelligence abuses, as well as some cautionaries.

While the Senate is probably compromised, an Obama commission with a similar charge to that of the Church Committee could be compromised in another way, as Obama himself has presided over much of what has caused so much widespread complaint. But he promised to get a handle on all this, and the reputation of the agencies going forward, not to mention the Obama Administration as a whole, is at stake, which also argues for a good faith effort on the part of the White House.

To be clear, we need strong intelligence agencies in a complex world. I am for the CIA. A patron of mine in schoolboy days was Sherman Kent, known as the "father of intelligence analysis" in the U.S., head of CIA analysis from the Korean War till the year before the Vietnam War's Tet Offensive, and founder of what became the National Intelligence Council. He and his brother Roger Kent, a former Department of Defense general counsel who chaired the California Democratic Party throughout Pat Brown's governorship, were great gentlemen, descendants of Founding Father Roger Sherman. I'm for the rest of the alphabet soup that makes up the intelligence community as well.

But if they become regarded as monstrous and out of control by not just the usual critics but also by much of the mainstream in the U.S. and around the world -- and they are on that cusp right now -- some of the most important tools in protecting the United States and its interests short of war become, at best, decidedly double-edged swords.

It is of course highly ironic that it is Feinstein who is now battling with the CIA. For she has been, for the most part, a reliable protector if not rubber stamp for the insiders of the intelligence community.

It was Feinstein, as Jon Stewart acidly points out, who repeatedly claimed there was little to worry about in the revelations of ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden. She even dubbed him a "traitor," which he clearly is not, at least under the definition of the U.S. Constitution, which is the only definition that counts.

And it was Feinstein who, at the beginning of the Obama Administration, objected to the president's plan to appoint our fellow Californian Leon Panetta, a non-insider of the intelligence community, as director of the CIA. I wrote about it at in January 2009, as you see in this excerpt from "CIA: Parsing the Panetta Pick."

Word is, and you know how the word is, that Obama had been leaning to picking intelligence professional John Brennan, who advised him during the campaign, as CIA director. But that got blown up as it became apparent that Brennan could be linked to some of the politically toxic practices of the CIA during the Bush/Cheney years, namely the torture policy.

Which would make Feinstein's reported touting of current CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes very wrongheaded. Prior to becoming the number two person in George W. Bush's CIA, he was one of the people running the agency's clandestine operations division. To say that he can be linked to torture, rendition, Guantanamo, overly zealous surveillance practices, etc., is merely to state the obvious.

In any event, the contention of Feinstein -- a highly-briefed senator who was absolutely convinced of the existence of Iraqi WMD, incidentally, speaking of getting it dead wrong -- that an intelligence professional is always better than a non-professional ignores some of America's most important history. In the 1950s, CIA Director Allen Dulles was widely acknowledged as one of the world's pre-eminent spymasters. But it's hard to say how good he was, because most of what he did was shrouded in secrecy.

One thing that was not shrouded in secrecy was the Bay of Pigs, that famously dunderheaded plan to invade Cuba in 1961 which Dulles and some warhawk generals conned the young JFK into approving. After that, Kennedy vowed to "smash the CIA into a thousand pieces." After calming down, he made his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the overseer of the intelligence community and brought in another Californian with no intelligence background, businessman John McCone, to run the CIA. McCone proved to be a highly effective CIA director, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Panetta commissioned the CIA torture report which many at the agency were loathe to pursue, then went on to become secretary of defense before retiring from public service. Brennan of course became Obama's chief counter-terrorism advisor in the White House and then, after Panetta's CIA successor General David Petraeus imploded in a sex scandal, became the current director of the CIA with which Feinstein is now battling.

It seems to me that we are now in a period not unlike that of the mid-1970s. Then confidence in government was low and and Vietnam War and Watergate era intelligence controversies alarmed many. Today confidence in government is low and post-9/11 intelligence controversies alarm many.

In 1975, then Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, a Montana Democrat and one of America's greatest senators, created the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, became the chairman of the committe that was forever after to bear his name. Notable members of this committee included Democrats Hart of Colorado, Walter Mondale of Minnesota, and Philip Hart of Michigan, along with such Republicans as Barry Goldwater of Arizona, John Tower of Texas, Howard Baker of Tennessee, and Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania. The latter, who would briefly become Ronald Reagan's 1976 running mate, co-chaired with Hart a task force looking into intelligence agency activities around the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The Senate's permanent oversight committee emerged as a result of the work performed by the so-called Church Committee. The Church Committee turned up a lot of alarming information about the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and National Security Agency. But it was also a rush job, from 1975-76, which ended up with the committee chairman dashing into a very high-profile but unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, too many experienced intelligence hands dismissed in an institutional zeal to appear reformist, and many loose ends.

In a recent commentary, Hart, whose front-running presidential candidacy was derailed in the late '80s by a sex scandal spoon fed to the media, recalled the closing scene of Three Days of the Condor and worried that "security is the new oil." That somewhere down the line there will be a new threat, a new need, that will cause otherwise sensible people to forget or ignore the dangers of allowing a security apparat to swing out of control.

In that scene of the classic '70s conspiracy thriller, Hart notes, "The CIA man (Cliff Robertson) tells Robert Redford's Joe Turner that of course the renegade CIA unit was pursuing oil: 'The American people want oil and they want us to get it for them. They don't care how we get it. They just want us to get it.'"

Fear and hysteria make for bad decision-making, as we saw in the aftermath of 9/11.

Which makes it all the more important to get things right when we have clearer heads.