THE BLOG
12/10/2014 11:54 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2014

At the Last, Feinstein Finds Trouble in the Secret World

It's safe to say that Senator Dianne Feinstein has been anything but a boat-rocker during her six years as chair of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. Indeed, she's widely regarded as having been a reliable ally of the alphabet soup intelligence community during her many years as a member of the Intelligence Committee, charged with providing oversight of the burgeoning secret world.


Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and incoming chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is a rare Republican to hail Senator Dianne Feinstein for pushing through the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture for intelligence during the Bush/Cheney Administration.

Vast and vastly controversial programs have emerged during her time as the senior Congressional overseer of the intel shops, including what was a super-secret surveillance apparat covering not just most of the globe but most Americans, and a still secret drone strike program which amounts to an ongoing aerial war against, well, that's not entirely clear. And to all that and in its inherent prospects of excess, she has been an ongoing booster. So her finding of fault with the secret world here at the last is not all that characteristic. Adding to her problematic oversight is a series of failed special forces hostage rescue missions.

The torture for information business that Feinstein's committee report presents is not at all a pretty story, on that there is little dispute. But there is dispute about the efficacy of the torture. Feinstein's hard and fast take is that it was incompetently managed, essentially useless, much more brutal than previously acknowledged, the take hyped by the Agency and the Administration, the outcome disastrous for America's reputation. There's a lot of pushback, but there's no question that the program was badly run and is a terrible blot on the nation's global reputation, and that was true before this report ever took shape.

Feinstein, whose daughter I knew at Berkeley, is an establishmentarian, a classic consensus politician, something of a centrist moralizer. Now on the verge of having to give up the crowning post of her career due to the Senate Republican takeover, in what may well be her final term at age 81, the 22-year senator and former San Francisco mayor is suddenly at the center of controversy for departing from the orthodox insider consensus of silence around our post-9/11 policy of torture to gain intelligence.

You'd think that Islamist radicals didn't have plenty of other ongoing grievances with us the way most Republicans speaking out now are screaming bloody murder over Feinstein's insistence on releasing the Committee's years-in-the-making report. Americans, they say, are at risk as a result of the report, which argues that 20 uses of torture that supposedly elicited useful intelligence during the Bush/Cheney years did nothing of the sort. However, as old friend and boss Gary Hart, who was part of the seminal Senate investigation, the Church Committee, into a much wider set of of intelligence excesses in the '70s, claims then that revelations would lead to American casualties proved to be unfounded.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney says it's a terrible thing to reveal the brutal techniques used by CIA personnel. But they did a great job and deserve medals. Hmm. Cheney, by the way, has a truly extraordinary history of trying to cover up secret world excesses and manipulate intelligence realities. It goes back 40 years this month, when, a President Ford's deputy chief of staff, he led damage control on Seymour Hersh's New York Times report of CIA spying on the anti-Vietnam War movement inside the US.

So the reaction by Cheney and company, if unintentionally amusing for its clashing claims of needed secrecy and flashy glory, isn't much of a surprise.

What seems to have been a surprise to Feinstein is the stance of the Obama administration, which has dragged its feet throughout the process before finally acceding to the inevitable partisan politics by endorsing the report this week. Endorsing the idea that torture is barbaric and a national embarrassment, that is, not that it did not yield good intel. On that point, Obama is staying mute, and out of the crossfire between the committee and his CIA directors.

First Feinstein discovered that CIA was spying on her committee and its computer systems. Then she had reportedly bad negotiations with CIA Director John Brennan. Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claimed in his memoirs that good intelligence was elicited by torture. Then came tough negotiations with the White House itself over redactions. Finally, Secretary of State John Kerry called his old Senate colleague last Friday to suggest that this was a bad time to release the report.

Of course, there are always good rationales to keep things secret in the secret world. Had Feinstein held off any longer, the Republican who will be Intelligence Committee chair next month undoubtedly would have kept the report bottled up forever.

Feinstein knows the rationale for forever secrecy in the secret world very well, since she has presided over the oversight system which allowed enormous expansions of global and domestic surveillance systems run by the National Security Agency and a big drone strike program run by the CIA and military, all with nary a peep of public protest.

We only know about the former due to the revelations by ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden, whom Feinstein denounced for "treason." Well, he's a problem if you are in government, but no traitor, as any reading of the Constitution reveals. The "take" from his revelations enabled the Guardian and Washington Post to win the Pulitzer Prize for public service

We still don't know much about the drone strike programs, though Feinstein assures that there are a lot fewer civilian casualties now.

Maybe so. Maybe not. We don't really know much about this program, other than it being an international assassination program that has evidently grown well beyond what one assumes to be its original rationale of taking out terrorists preparing to strike against the US.

Incidentally, Feinstein never explained why she thinks that CIA -- whose principal mission is to gather and analyze intelligence -- should play the lead role in what is historically the military function of making war. That seems a distraction from critical intelligence work.

I highlight this point because we have now suffered through three very recent failed special forces raids that we know of to rescue US hostages. These raids failed in large part due to inadequate intelligence.

In the most recent misadventure, the American photojournalist hostage the special forces troopers were there to recuse was killed, which is bad enough. Worse is that a South African hostage, who was due to be released, according to persistent reports, was also killed. We didn't even know he was on the premises.

Bad things can happen in war, and no one person or group of people should be blamed because of the way the ball bounces. The pattern that emerges here is a failure of policy.

The intelligence side of the needed intel/special forces operations is falling down.

As she prepares to depart her chairmanship, Feinstein has also just sounded a rather muted alarm about our nuclear weapons. Though most think we've cut back dramatically in recent years, since the Soviet empire fell apart over 20 years ago and Obama concluded a big nuclear cutback treaty with Russia in his first term, we're actually spending more on nuclear weapons now than we have since the 1980s. But Feinstein should know the history of arms control since the 1960s; that agreements are accompanied or followed by other evaluations or modernizations which make ongoing potential nuclear overkill one of the few constants in life.

If Feinstein turned this into a public discussion, it might be enlightening. But an op-ed seems to have sufficed for her.

As for the torture report, the barbaric details are sufficiently horrifying as to turn off the public to the policy, which Obama ended on the first day of his presidency. But torture proponents seems likely to muddy up the question of how effective it all was, with the acquiescence of Obama and his administration.

So torture as policy is likely to be shunned, just as John McCain, who applauds Feinstein's effort, prefers. But torture in exigent circumstances, well, that's another matter. And that all depends on how how you define the circumstances.

In the hands of, say, a Dick Cheney -- who believes that if there is a one percent chance of something happening you must act as though it's a certainty, a recipe for perpetual hysterical reaction -- that starts the whole ball rolling all over again.

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