The CIA is punking the Senate. Here's how the Senate can fight back.
The CIA's monthslong battle with the Senate has reached a new impasse, this time over the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, or SSCI, report on the CIA's torture of terrorism suspects during the Bush years. In about the most blatant conflict of interest imaginable, the CIA was allowed to redact the report about its own war crimes — and to precisely no one's surprise, the spy agency blacked it out into gibberish.
In a statement, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said "strategically placed redactions can make a narrative incomprehensible," and that redactions should not be made merely to "cover up acts that could embarrass the agency." Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee chair, delayed the release of the report, saying it can't be made public in its current, incomprehensible form.
Though Feinstein made the right decision here, she has consistently underestimated her opponent throughout this standoff. The CIA is clearly not operating in good faith, which was made abundantly clear when Director John Bennan admitted last week that the agency had spied on Senate staffers compiling the report. (It cannot be overstated how egregiously illegal this is.) President Obama, caught in the middle, isn't exactly cracking down on the agency's effort to escape as much accountability as possible.
The Senate is in a fight with a bunch of dishonest swindlers. Therefore, Feinstein shouldn't hesitate to use every tool at her disposal. It's time to pull a Mike Gravel and read the report into the Senate record.
Back in 1971, Gravel, then the Democratic senator from Alaska, got a copy of the Pentagon Papers from Ben Bagdikian of The Washington Post. On June 29 of that year, during a meeting of a subcommittee of which he was the chair, he read the document until 1 a.m., then had the remaining 4,100 pages inserted into the congressional record. Such acts are protected by the Speech or Debate Clause in the Constitution.
A subsequent court case confirmed that Gravel was within his rights as a senator. There was some dispute about how he had obtained the papers, but luckily that wouldn't be a question in this case, because this is a report created by the Senate itself.
In theory, any senator could do this. Ron Wyden of Oregon or Udall are obvious candidates, as they have proven themselves to be the committee's foremost champions of civil liberties. But Udall is in a tough re-election campaign this year, and Wyden is also up in 2016 (though he is probably a shoo-in). Feinstein, by contrast, is not up until 2018, when she may well retire, given that she'll be 85 at that date.
However, there is a better reason for Feinstein to take this on. Though she has always been strongly supportive of the intelligence community, this dispute goes far beyond that. This is about defending the Senate as an institution. The CIA has lied through its teeth, hacked into the committee's computers, and abused its redacting privileges, all but declaring that the Senate is not fit to oversee the agency. It's both an outrage against democratic principles and a slap in the face of the Senate.
As the chair of SSCI and one of the most distinguished senators in the country, Feinstein makes an ideal candidate for a demonstration of Senate dignity. It may not solve the problem of a lawless intelligence community (we would need criminal prosecutions for that), but it would be a victory against an executive branch that has run roughshod over the legislature. It's time the Senate stood up for itself.