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News Opinion Editorial

A tortuous debate [Editorial]

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has long been known as one of the U.S. intelligence community's staunchest defenders. So when an outraged Ms. Feinstein appeared on the Senate floor Tuesday to denounce the CIA and its director, John Brennan, for stealing documents from her committee's computers, spying on its activities and attempting to intimidate committee staffers investigating the agency's treatment of terrorist detainees after the Sept. 11 attacks, it was a clear sign that something is seriously amiss at the agency.

At the heart of the dispute between Ms. Feinstein and the CIA is a 6,300-page report her committee is preparing on the brutal methods used by the agency to interrogate captured terrorist suspects in secret prisons overseas and at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Ms. Feinstein said she is pushing the White House to declassify the material soon so that the nation could know "the horrible details of the CIA program that never, never, never should have existed."

Within hours of Ms. Feinstein's remarks, Mr. Brennan denied the charges, saying the CIA never conducted unauthorized searches of the computers used by the intelligence committee or tried to sabotage its efforts. "When the facts come out on this," Mr. Brennan told reporters, "I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong."

But other U.S. officials conceded the CIA was concerned about how committee staffers had obtained an internal agency report about the detainees' treatment that was not among the 6.2 million classified records the agency turned over to Ms. Feinstein's committee. They suggested the document was never intended to be shared with the committee and that access to it by committee staffers had led to rising tension between the CIA and its civilian overseers.

The fact that Ms. Feinstein has decided to go public with the dispute suggests that the CIA's use of waterboarding and other coercive methods to extract information from terrorist detainees may have been even more extensive than previously reported. What we've learned in recent years about the agency's so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" is already chilling enough to question whether the CIA broke the law.

Last year, a report by the Constitution Project, an independent legal research and advocacy group, found that not only did those techniques constitute torture under the Geneva Conventions but that their use had "damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive." In addition to waterboarding, in which strapped down prisoners are subjected to simulated drowning by pouring water into their noses and mouths through a cloth, the agency's methods included beatings, confinement in crippling stress positions, exposure to extreme hot and cold and depriving them of food, sleep and medical care.

Given that history one can hardly be reassured by Mr. Brennan's dismissal of the possibility that his agency engaged in any "tremendous sort of" spying, monitoring and hacking. Clearly it has resisted cooperating fully with the intelligence committee's inquiry in order to suppress further details about its use of torture after the Sept. 11 attacks. And for that matter, even a little bit of spying and hacking directed against Congress is unacceptable — a fact Ms. Feinstein took pains to point out when she called her dispute with the agency a "defining moment" for elected leaders' role in overseeing the nation's intelligence community.

Mr. Brennan suggests he is confident President Obama will support the agency against Ms. Feinstein's charge that its alleged spying on Congress violated the principle of separation of powers. That may or may not be true, but what is certain is that the president should expedite declassifying the Senate committee's report so the public can judge for itself whether the CIA crossed a line in its treatment of detainees. Mr. Brennan has maintained all along, as did his predecessor Leon Panetta, that the CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques were limited to a few isolated cases. If everything was as on the up-and-up as he says it was, neither he nor his agency should have anything to hide.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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