Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Opinion: The Feud Between the CIA and the Senate Is Not a Problem -- It's a Glimmer of Hope

Our adversarial, Madisonian system may be alive after all.

Political reporters are often unaware of the assumptions baked into the stories they write. Take the dispute between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA. Politico's latest on the subject: "Dianne Feinstein-CIA feud enters uncharted territory." Here is the lede:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s battle with the CIA has entered dangerous, uncharted territory.

Caught in the crossfire of the powerful California Democrat’s fight with the nation’s most recognized intelligence agency: America’s ability to manage multiple geopolitical hotspots, top national security nominations and senior Senate and CIA officials who could lose their jobs or possibly even end up in jail.

By way of background, Feinstein, along with other Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats, says the CIA withheld documents in the course of an investigation into its illegal torture and illegally spied on Senate staffers. If accurate, the Senate's ability to oversee the CIA and the Constitution's checks and balances are in question. Yet Politico's reporter, Darren Samuelsohn, has written his article as if Feinstein's decision to publicly complain about the CIA's behavior and the dispute with the CIA it sparked is the threat. Her "battle" led to dangerous "crossfire" and important things are caught in it. Conflict is the problem! Comity is the answer! Why can't they all just get along?

It seldom occurs to the Beltway reporter that open conflict among establishment insiders can be a sign of health: Our adversarial, Madisonian system may be alive after all. I'd argue that the CIA's ongoing, well-documented efforts to thwart Senate oversight and escape accountability for lawbreakers within their ranks is the problem—and that we'd have great cause for alarm if Feinstein wasn't furious.

History has shown that absent an adversarial Senate that exercises oversight according to the checks and balances at the core of our system, the CIA will run amok at home and abroad. Excessive deference to the intelligence community does the most, in the long term, to weaken our "ability to manage multiple geopolitical hotspots."

The Politico article doesn't marshal arguments to the contrary. It unwittingly forecloses my take from consideration. It adopts a contested frame as if it's neutral. The article continues:

Managing relations between Congress and the intelligence community is always tricky—an outgrowth of closed-door oversight into sensitive national security issues where lawmakers often complain that they must ask the right questions to get the right answers.

Let's try frank language. Relations are "tricky" to manage because the CIA is averse to oversight. If our Senate Intelligence Committee is functioning as intended, its relationship to the CIA is deeply adversarial, because the agency is being forced to account for its behavior, some of which is indefensible. At times, for example, the CIA lies to or deliberately misleads overseers, in part to hide illegal behavior. Illegal CIA behavior is part of the 6,000-page torture report behind this dispute!

But now that the Justice Department is involved in the dispute between Feinstein’s Intelligence Committee staff and the CIA—deciphering whether the CIA violated the Constitution or federal law by searching Senate computers, or whether Democratic staffers hacked into the CIA’s system to obtain classified documents—things have escalated to an unprecedented level.

What vexes me about how this dispute is being covered—not just in this Politicostory, but in many media outlets—is the false equivalence implicit in the juxtaposition: as if the CIA and the Senate committee stand accused of like transgressions. If the charges against the CIA are true, our nation's foreign spy agency, which is forbidden from conducting any surveillance in the U.S., snooped on our legislature. That's a transgression against our constitutional framework.

If the accusations against the Senate intel committee are accurate, its staffers, who have security clearances, obtained documents that the CIA ought to have turned over anyway. Are we prepared to accept that, during a comprehensive congressional inquiry into torture, the CIA was justified withholding torture documents? Senate staffers committed no great sin getting documents wrongly denied them.

To its credit, the Politico article quotes Majority Leader Harry Reid articulating some of these points about the separation of powers. But the analysis next offered is the following:

With no clear resolution in sight, Capitol Hill and the CIA are stuck in the awkward spot of trying to maintain business as usual, when the reality is it’s anything but. “This is the most serious feud since the Intelligence committees were established,” said Amy Zegart, a former National Security Council staffer and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Most alarming, Zegart explained, is Feinstein’s Senate floor broadside earlier this month against the CIA. The senator’s remarks broke from her well-established reputation as a staunch defender of another wing of the intelligence community, the National Security Agency, amid scores of Edward Snowden-inspired leaks to the media.

“When someone who says they can be trusted now says they can’t, it’s really bad,” Zegart said.

Incredible. "Business as usual" is implicitly defined as the desirable state of affairs. And what's deemed "most alarming"? Not CIA torture. Not the CIA withholding torture documents from a Senate investigation. Not the CIA spying on Congress, or trying to intimidate oversight staffers with criminal charges for doing their jobs. Bizarrely, the thing declared "most alarming" are Feinstein's words! By attacking rather than deferring to the CIA, she disrupted business as usual.

Her act of "saying" is emphasized as the important factor.

Then a bit farther on:

Feinstein and [CIA Director John] Brennan are standing by their contradictory explanations of what happened in the course of the Democratic staff’s investigation into the Bush-era CIA programs. Absent a meeting of the minds, some say the only way for the chairwoman to save face is for Brennan to go.

The article might have said, "Absent a meeting of the minds, some say the Senate intel committee should show its oversight ability is intact by forcing Brennan to resign." Instead, the focus is on Feinstein's ability to save face, as if her face-saving itself—not its implications for good governance—is what's important. Perhaps face-saving is what they're gossiping about in Washington, D.C.?

In the article's defense, it then goes on to quote former Representative Pete Hoekstra, who has a far more sensible analysis of the stakes: "The real question it will come down to is whether Dianne Feinstein believes she can have a working relationship with John Brennan. And if she believes that relationship is beyond repair and it’s going to be difficult to rebuild that trust between the oversight committee and the CIA … then there’s really only one alternative. And that’s Brennan has to step aside."

The reporter also quotes House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers:

“Our oversight is alive and well and robust. That won’t change,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said in an interview. But the Michigan Republican also warned that the dispute needed to be resolved, and soon—otherwise there could be consequences.

“I think if this doesn’t get handled right in the next short period of time this has the potential of having other broader implications, and I hope it doesn’t get to that,” Rogers said. “You don’t want everything to become adversarial,” he added. “The oversight will continue. If it’s adversarial or not, it will continue. It’s always better when both sides agree to a framework on what will be provided; otherwise, it becomes a subpoena exchange, and that’s just not helpful.”

This is why the Tea Party should subject Rogers to a primary challenge: A man charged with overseeing the CIA actually believes that the spy agency would agree to a framework where it voluntarily provided overseers with all they needed to know! It's hard to say whether he's been co-opted or is staggeringly naive.

The article goes astray again by putting forth the following passage without rebuttal:

In the absence of answers of what happened, several intelligence veterans said the Feinstein-CIA dispute is taking up lawmakers’ limited oxygen supply on complex issues ranging from Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance overreach to cybersecurity threats and tensions flaring in Ukraine, Syria, Egypt and other global hotspots.

Implicit in this treatment is the notion that CIA spying on Congress is a tertiary concern, a controversy distracting us from more important issues. I'd argue that, if there's a limited oxygen supply in Washington, D.C., safeguarding the separation of powers and adequate oversight of the CIA is far more important than, say, Syria. It is troubling, but unsurprising, that intelligence veterans think otherwise.

The Church Committee investigation was the high point of congressional oversight of the intelligence community. By calling this current disagreement "unprecedented" and reporting on it as if the resulting conflict itself imperils America, the Politico story obscures the fact that Feinstein and her colleagues generally have a far cozier relationship with the CIA, the NSA, and other parts of the Deep State than is healthy—for their job is, in fact, to be adversarial.

The present dispute, in which the Senate objects to being spied on by the CIA, is a welcome break from that too cozy relationship but is not sufficient to defend and protect the Constitution from lawbreaking at the CIA, the NSA, and other agencies.

All reporters should understand that conflict is a necessary part of oversight—a sign that the system is working, not that it is mired in dysfunction. The barest bit of context helps clarify this situation. Once it is public, the Senate Intelligence Committee report will expose behavior that could, if prosecuted, put some people who work at the CIA in jail. Of course the CIA is lashing out against its Senate overseers.