Dianne Feinstein's career in the U.S. Senate is far from over — her current term runs through 2018 — but it is clear that one of the California Democrat's most important legacies will be her role in exposing the stomach-turning abuses committed by the Central Intelligence Agency in the aftermath of 9/11.
As chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein doggedly pressed an investigation into the use of torture in the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists. She also pushed back when the intelligence community resisted declassification of details contained in the executive summary of the committee's voluminous report.
Now, Feinstein is pressing for reforms to make it much harder for the United States to stray again into what former Vice President Dick Cheney chillingly characterized as the “dark side.” In a letter to President Obama, Feinstein has identified several steps, some to be accomplished by legislation and others that the White House and the CIA would institute on their own.
Perhaps the most important legislative proposal would be to codify Obama's executive order requiring the CIA to abide by restrictions on interrogations spelled out in the Army Field Manual, including a ban on such “enhanced interrogation techniques” as the infliction of pain, stress positions and sleep deprivation. In 2008, President George W. Bush vetoed similar legislation. Feinstein would also have Congress overrule a Justice Department interpretation of a 2005 anti-torture law and declare “coercive and abusive interrogation techniques” illegal.
Finally, Feinstein is calling for legislation to prohibit the CIA from holding detainees “beyond a short-term transitory basis,” a response to the long-term detention of suspects at overseas “black sites” under Bush. Obama shut down the overseas prisons, but it's important that a successor not reverse that decision.
Because of the separation of powers, Congress may not dictate the details of how the White House operates. But Obama — and his successors — would be wise to implement Feinstein's recommendation that the National Security Council improve its oversight of covert operations and that it not rely on the CIA for assessments of its own activities. A key conclusion of the Intelligence Committee report was that the CIA provided the White House (and Congress) with “extensive inaccurate information.”
It would be naive to think that Feinstein's proposals will win easy approval in either house of a Republican-controlled Congress. Most Republicans on the Intelligence Committee didn't support the panel's report, which assailed the CIA, and the emergence of Islamic State has provided a pretext for members of Congress who oppose reform of the intelligence community.
But Feinstein deserves credit for fighting the good fight, and she is entitled to support. The president, who publicly admitted that “we tortured some folks,” should adopt her proposals and lobby Congress to enact legislation necessary to cement in law his own repudiation of the “dark side.”
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