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The Senate Didn't Care Much About Surveillance Until the CIA Spied on It Too

The Senate is quickly learning they're not above the surveillance state.
Brennan being sworn in last year by Joe Biden. Image: White House

The Senate Intelligence Committee says it got spied on by the CIA. And, like many other Americans that have recently found out they’ve been spied on, they’re not happy about it at all.

It doesn’t necessarily make Dianne Feinstein and her colleagues wafflers, even though they have defended the National Security Agency throughout most of the last year. It’s another example that, until something happens to you, you’re not going to worry much about it happening to other people.


The facts still aren’t clear about what happened, but here’s what we think we know: Several years ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee decided to conduct a full investigation of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program after initial reports found “chilling” facts about the CIA’s since-discontinued torture program. To help the oversight committee complete the report, the CIA dumped 6.2 million pages of documents onto a computer network accessible by the Senate and CIA IT techs and provided the Senate a search tool to help staffers comb through the documents.

The Senate used this to write the report, which has still not been released, but along the way, Feinstein alleges that the CIA deleted close to 1,000 pages of critical documents off the server. That caused some initial strife between the Senate committee and the CIA, but they eventually moved past it, according to Feinstein. The committee eventually came up with a draft of the report, one that current CIA director John Brennan says is riddled with inaccuracies.

Here’s where things get really interesting. And by “interesting,” I mean “probably illegal.” The Senate got access to a document, accidentally placed on the server, called the “Internal Panetta Review” that Feinstein says directly corroborates the parts of the report that Brennan has taken issue with. That document was deleted off of the server by CIA officials, but not before Senate staffers had moved it to their own personal servers. Feinstein says that, in January, she learned that CIA officials had searched committee computers that they weren’t supposed to have access to, in an attempt to delete that document and to potentially delay the release of the report.


“Based on what Director Brennan has informed us, I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution,” Feinstein testified Tuesday. “Besides the constitutional implications, the CIA’s search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance.”

Brennan quickly defended his agency and said that the CIA “wants to put the Rendition, Detention and, Interrogation chapter of its history behind it.”

“We have not been a perfect organization," he said. "We have made mistakes, more than a few, and we’ve tried to learn from them wherever and whenever appropriate."

The RDI program was one of those mistakes, he said, but spying on the Senate isn’t one of them.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said of Feinstein’s allegations. “We wouldn’t do that. That’s beyond the scope of reason.”

And that’s where we are right now. Feinstein, who has been one of the NSA’s most ardent supporters, said earlier this year that she didn’t like it when a drone spied on her and now she’s certainly not thrilled that the CIA was snooping on private Senate servers: "I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate. I have received neither."


Well, neither have the millions of Americans who have been spied on by the NSA.

Edward Snowden said Tuesday that it's a shame that the CIA has been trying to circumvent the Congressional oversight process, but it's particularly rich that surveillance defenders such as Feinstein (and German Chancellor Angela Merkel before her) take personal offense when snooping is targeted at them.

"It's clear the CIA was trying to play 'keep away' with documents relevant to an investigation by their overseers in Congress, and that's a serious constitutional concern,” Snowden told NBC News. “But 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."

The incident is further evidence that Feinstein, and other members of Congress, at the very least lack empathy. We see it time and time again, starting with healthcare, welfare, and anything else involving the underprivileged. And now we're seeing it with regards to surveillance.

But as lawmakers start to see that government spying goes far beyond looking at potential terrorists and far beyond metadata collection, the number of them who feel like surveillance is nothing to worry about is going to dwindle. And then maybe they'll do something about it.