A day after National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden told South by South West (SXSW) attendees that U.S. government agencies’ mass surveillance techniques are “setting fire to the future of the Internet,” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., went public with what she said was a CIA Internet scandal that for months she had been trying to resolve in a “discreet and respectful way.”
“However, the increasing amount of inaccurate information circulating now cannot be allowed to stand unanswered,” Feinstein said during a March 11 speech on the Senate floor.
Feinstein alleges that after the Senate Intelligence Committee received approval, in 2009, to conduct an “expansive and full review” of CIA detention and interrogation practices that went into effect in 2002, the CIA searched Senate committee computers, as well as a separate network drive containing committee members’ work and internal notes, and removed hundreds of pages of documents while the investigation was underway.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., responded to Feinstein’s speech by saying that if what Feinstein said is true, “this is Richard Nixon stuff. This is dangerous to a democracy. Heads should roll. People should go to jail, if it’s true. The legislative branch should declare war on the CIA, if it’s true,” NPR reported March 11.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the report added, called it “very disturbing,” while according the Wall Street Journal, former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo, who was involving in overseeing the interrogation program, dismissed Feinstein’s account of events as a “pissing contest about committee access.”
In her near 40-minute speech (the Guardian has posted a full transcript), Feinstein explained that after receiving approval to begin the investigation, the committee requested that it be sent the relevant documents. However, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta instead suggested providing “literally millions of pages of operational cables, internal emails, memos, and other documents pursuant to the committee’s document requests at a secure location in Northern Virginia.”
Panetta, Feinstein and then-committee Vice Chairman Christopher Bond agreed that the CIA would provide the committee with a stand-alone computer system and a network drive that would be “segregated from CIA networks.”
Before handing over the sensitive documents—6.2 million pages—the CIA had them reviewed not only by a committee at a CIA facility but also, at a great cost and loss of time, by outside consultants, said Feinstein. When the documents finally arrived, they weren’t indexed and included no electronic search tools, but the committee ultimately developed practices for dealing with and setting aside notable materials.
In May 2010, committee staff realized that certain documents that were provided were suddenly no longer accessible, and on two occasions Feinstein, heading the committee, learned that CIA personnel had electronically removed documents—in one instance a group of roughly 50 documents and in another, approximately 870 documents.
Feinstein went to the White House to complain and received an apology and assurances that the CIA would stop removing documents.
Later, the committee came across drafts of what would later become known as the “Internal Panetta Review,” a detailed account of what The New York Times would later call “particularly scorching” interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding.
“What was unique and interesting about the internal documents was not their classification level, but rather their analysis and acknowledgement of significant CIA wrongdoing,” said Feinstein.
Feinstein Goes Public With CIA’s Dirty Practices, Snowden Rolls Eyes
The CIA has accused the committee of hacking into its system to obtain the Panetta documents, but Feinstein said no such thing happened, and it’s unclear whether the report had always been among the 6 million-plus pages, whether intentionally or not, or was added by a whistleblower.
Sometime after the committee identified and began reviewing the Panetta documents, said Feinstein, “access to the vast majority of them was removed by the CIA. We believe this happened in 2010 but we have no way of knowing the specifics. Nor do we know why the documents were removed. The staff was focused on reviewing the tens of thousands of new documents that continued to arrive on a regular basis.”
Feinstein requested a full copy of the “Internal Panetta Review,” to no avail. In January, she wrote to CIA Director John Brennan asking for an emergency meeting—after she learned that CIA personnel had conducted a “search” of the committee’s offsite computers and network drive—and wrote another letter asking 12 specific questions about the CIA’s actions, both of which have gone unanswered.
Weeks later, Feinstein continued, she was told that the acting general counsel of the CIA had filed a crimes report with the Department of Justice concerning the committee staff’s work.
“The staff members who have been working on this study and this report have devoted years of their lives to it—wading through the horrible details of a CIA program that never, never should have existed. They have worked long hours and produced a report … unprecedented in the history of the Senate. They are now being threatened with legal jeopardy, just as the final revisions to the report are being made so that parts of it can be declassified and released to the American people,” said Feinstein.
She concluded, “How Congress responds and how this is resolved will show whether the Intelligence Committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.”
Snowden sent NBC News a statement on the matter, saying it is clear the CIA was playing “keep away” with the documents, but also saying some hypocrisy was at play.
“It’s equally if not more concerning that we’re seeing another ‘Merkel Effect,’ where an elected official does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies, but suddenly it’s a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them,” Snowden said.
The U.S. government’s spying practices, revealed by Snowden, have encouraged a market of security- and privacy-intense mobile phones, including the Blackphone, from Silent Circle and Geeksphone, the Black phone, from Boeing, and a Privacy Phone from FreedomPop, which has nicknamed the device the “Snowden Phone.”