Dianne Feinstein of California arguably used to be the CIA's best friend on the Democratic side of the Senate. I think it's fair to say that San Francisco voters were not enthusiastic about her pro-intelligence posture during the George W. Bush presidency. One thing DiFi has going for her, though, is that it's hard even for critics to not crack a smile at her famously idiosyncratic stubborn streak. She's old-school. She makes up her mind and digs in deep. And then something else sticks in her craw.
As Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chairwoman during President Barack Obama's first six years, Feinstein did lock horns with CIA brass -- and it was over the Bush years. She is on a crusade to convince America that Bush-era coercive interrogation techniques were wrong -- a respectable position -- but also produced no intelligence, which is hard to believe.
"I really do respect her passion for national security and her passion for intelligence," former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told me during a tour to push his book, "The Great War of Our Time: The CIA's Fight Against Terrorism -- From al Qa'ida to ISIS," co-written with former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow. "We had a really good relationship," he said. Then, in December 2012, when Morell was acting director, Feinstein gave him the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program, which denied that the interrogation methods had produced valuable intelligence.
Former CIA Directors George Tenet and Porter Goss contend that harsh techniques helped deliver valuable intelligence. And though former CIA Director Leon Panetta said waterboarding is "torture," he said the methods produced clues that led to Osama bin Laden. Democratic committee staffers combed through 6.3 million documents, Feinstein noted. The GOP minority report countered that the Democrats' staff never interviewed CIA officials, even after a federal probe had been closed. My issue with the Feinstein report was that it cost $40 million and years of staff work to try to prove something I do not believe can be proved, i.e., that the CIA could have found the information through other means.
The report did include a lot of damaging information that made the CIA look bad. Yet if committee staffers couldn't find any evidence that the enhanced techniques produced unique intelligence after reviewing 6.3 million documents, they must not have wanted to find it.
DiFi argues that waterboarding and other coercive techniques are "a stain on our values and our history." Morell writes: "I believe that waterboarding was one of the two most effective of all the harsh techniques (the other being sleep deprivation). That complicates things. Doesn't it?" If waterboarding stains American values, then surely drones do, as well; yet Feinstein supports Obama's use of drones. In DiFi's world, it's good policy to blow suspected terrorists to bits, just as long as you don't get them wet first. It's politically expedient to use drones to save U.S. military lives but not OK to waterboard to save civilian lives.
I can't help but roll my eyes when I hear politicians saying they need to wage a full-bore investigation because a probe will, as Feinstein proclaimed, "prevent this from ever happening again."
But without a congressional investigation, the CIA stopped waterboarding in March 2003, well before Obama banned all 10 harsh interrogation techniques in his first week in office. Agents employed waterboarding on three detainees over a period of eight months, and many in the agency opposed the practice from the start. The expense and stress of legal investigations, even into practices approved by the Department of Justice, discouraged any believers in the methods.
Feinstein's office informed me that despite her differences with the CIA, the senator remains supportive of it and its vital mission. I believe it. Even as a U.S. senator, San Francisco's former mayor has kept a watchful eye over the city. "Her concerns with the program date all the way back to 2006," a spokesman wrote, "when she was first briefed on (the detention and interrogation program), and only grew when she learned more about the program." He was referring to the destruction of videotapes of waterboarding by former National Clandestine Service chief Jose Rodriguez in 2005. Feinstein's view of the CIA did not improve when she "reluctantly" accused the CIA of snooping through her committee's computers, which she considered an act of intimidation.
For its part, the CIA maintains that it briefed key members of Congress as early as 2002. (Feinstein was not one of them.) "If I could tell America one thing about the program I didn't put in the book," Morell told me, "I would say this was not CIA's program. This was America's program." An elected president approved it. Elected members of Congress gave it the nod. It was not, he said, a "rogue program."
It was America's program then, but now it's a rogue program. And it will remain a rogue program as long as there is not another large-scale terrorist attack in this country. If there is, you can be sure that Washington will blame the CIA. CIA staffers will be kicking themselves for missing any warning signs and desperate to make sure another large attack does not happen again.
Maybe members of the intelligence community will be too fearful of a Senate investigation to do whatever they think they need to do to prevent another terrorist attack. But probably their biggest concern will be to prevent another 9/11.