As head of the Senate Intelligence Committee since 2009, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has spent hundreds of hours in secret briefings and seen thousands of pictures from battlefields in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. She keeps two images with her.
One shows a little girl wearing a gingham dress, white tights and black Mary Janes — but the girl’s head is gone. Another is of a teenage boy, duct tape over his mouth, eyes bulging out, being forced to hold two severed heads.
“To me, it’s what we are up against,” Feinstein said in an interview. “It is a testament to pure evil.”
The senior senator from California has spent more than 14 years on the Senate’s most secretive committee, and through much of that time, she has defended the country’s intelligence establishment.
She insisted that the National Security Agency was right to secretly collect data on huge numbers of telephone calls made by Americans. And she backed the CIA’s covert use of Predator drones to conduct targeted killings in half a dozen nations.
But as she prepares to turn over the committee’s gavel next month to Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.), Feinstein’s tenure as chairwoman is closing amid an acrimonious fight over a project that pits her against the CIA. Her staff has completed a 6,000-page report evaluating and criticizing the agency’s use during the George W. Bush years of harsh interrogation tactics, which President Obama and others have labeled as torture.
Since April, Feinstein has been fighting with the CIA and the White House to make public as much as possible of the report’s 480-page executive summary.
In recent days, Feinstein and administration officials have resolved the final debates over how much will be blacked out of the public version of the report. Then on Friday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, acting on behalf of the administration, called Feinstein to ask her to delay the release. Making the report public now would threaten the security of American personnel overseas, Kerry told her.
The request put Feinstein in an agonizingly difficult position — delay the release and run the risk that Burr and the Republicans will block the report after they take over in January, or go ahead and take the blame if Americans in foreign countries are harmed.
At the heart of the report is a review of 20 cases in which interrogators used brutality and inhumane treatment to produce what the CIA says was useful intelligence.
Leon E. Panetta, who served under Obama as CIA director from 2009 to 2011, wrote in his memoir, “Worthy Fights,” that such methods should not have been used, but that the CIA got “critical intelligence” from them. “What we can’t know — what we’ll never know — is whether those were the only ways to elicit that information,” Panetta wrote.
Feinstein believes her report does provide a definitive answer. “The staff has looked at all 20 and they believe that isn’t true,” Feinstein said, referring to the claim that the harsh methods led to actionable intelligence. The committee’s six-year-long review of thousands of CIA documents concluded that the harsh interrogations were ineffective and that the information learned, in most cases, could have been found using other methods.
The report specifically says that the harsh tactics were not necessary to obtain details that led the CIA to Osama bin Laden’s courier and ultimately to Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
The battle over the report contrasts with much of Feinstein’s tenure. Even her Republican opponents praise her efforts to steer the committee after the turmoil of the Bush era.
“I never felt like Dianne was being a partisan Democrat when it comes to national security, and I think that’s why she and I kind of ‘gee-hawed’ so well together,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who has been the top Republican on the committee but is retiring from the Senate at the end of the month.
Feinstein and Chambliss cut through the political whirl surrounding the attacks on an American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 to produce a bipartisan report that dismissed claims that a “tactical warning” had predicted an attack that day.
And, after five years of gridlock stemming from the angry debate over how top Bush administration officials had used intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq, Feinstein ushered four bipartisan bills through Congress that defined the authority of the intelligence agencies to conduct covert and clandestine operations.
Feinstein also defended the CIA against efforts by the Pentagon to eclipse the agency’s covert drone program. She believes the CIA has a better track record than the military and more experience with the strikes.
“They have the patience and they wait until the situation is right,” Feinstein said. “There are not hot heads” making the decision on when to fire, she said.
She has sent committee staff members into the CIA “more than 50 times” to make unannounced visits to watch the operation of the drone program, she said.
The number of civilians killed in CIA strikes has declined in the last few years, she said. “Collateral damage is low,” Feinstein said, which was one of her goals when she increased oversight of the targeting-killing program after she took control of the committee.
But none of that has yielded backing for Feinstein on the interrogation report.
Republicans were initially part of the study but pulled out in 2009, saying they did not want to interfere with a Department of Justice investigation into the deaths of two detainees held in CIA custody. By the time Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. announced in August 2012 that no one would be charged in the deaths, Chambliss said the Democrats’ inquiry “was too far down the road” for Republicans to jump back in.
Even some of those who side with Feinstein in criticizing the CIA’s actions are skeptical of the effort that has gone into the report.
“It’s probably beating a dead horse,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview, referring to the thousands of hours that Feinstein’s staff spent compiling the classified report. Obama banned coercive interrogation methods and ordered the CIA to close its remaining overseas prisons on his first full day in office in January 2009, Graham noted.
But, Graham added, the extensive documentation could prevent a future administration from resorting to similar methods.
“At the end of the day, it is important not to repeat these things,” Graham said.
The final chapter in the debate began in August, when the White House presented Feinstein with a declassified version of the summary in which about 15% was blacked out.
Feinstein was angry. The redactions obscured the roles of key CIA officers, she said, and the public would not be able to understand how people inside the agency had made crucial decisions.
“They redacted our argument,” Feinstein said.
After Feinstein’s staff hit an impasse with CIA Director John Brennan, the White House took over the negotiations, “for some unfathomable reason,” Feinstein said.
Over the summer, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough visited Feinstein at her home in California. But Feinstein felt McDonough hadn’t crossed the country to negotiate so much as “to make their position clear.”
The White House’s involvement was “not received well,” Feinstein said.
Ultimately, the amount blacked out in the report was reduced to about 5%. But Feinstein lost a major argument over using pseudonyms to refer to CIA officers. Administration officials argued that identifying the agents, even by a pseudonym, would put them in jeopardy. In the end, most of the names of CIA officers are blacked out; only some senior-level officials are mentioned by their true names.
The study showed that “management was poor” for the interrogation program, Feinstein said, and that some analysts were giving operational orders, against normal practice.
“We have to get this report out,” Feinstein said, even if she had to give in on some of her demands for transparency. “We will find another way to make known some of the problems.”
The interrogations undermined “societal and constitutional values that we are very proud of,” Feinstein said. “Anybody who reads this is going to never let this happen again.”