Sen. Saxby Chambliss, (R-GA) in Athens, Ga., on Jan. 28, 2013.
AJ Reynolds/The Athens Banner-Herald/AP

Republicans back CIA in Senate spying showdown

Despite early signs of support, Republicans aren’t united in backing California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein in her dispute with the Central Intelligence Agency

Tuesday morning Feinstein accused the CIA of potentially violating the law, the Constitution, and an executive order barring the agency from domestic spying, saying the CIA had without permission searched computers being used by Senate intelligence committee staffers to investigate the Bush-era torture program. The CIA has accused the committee staff of improperly accessing CIA documents. 

Some Senate Republicans backed Feinstein in a series of early statements. “This is dangerous to a democracy,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Tuesday. “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.” Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain called for a “thorough and complete investigation.” 

Graham and McCain, however, may be outliers: Both senators have in the past publicly criticized the CIA over the subject of the investigation – the Bush-era detention and coercive interrogation program – which sets them apart from their colleagues. Other high-profile Republicans, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have simply declined to comment. And there are indications that, despite the seriousness of Feinstein’s allegations, Republican may side with the CIA.

Wednesday afternoon, Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the vice-chair of the Senate intelligence committee, gave a superficially neutral-sounding speech on the Senate floor stating that “there are still a lot of unanswered questions that must be addressed.”

But Chambliss’s speech nevertheless subtly backed the CIA’s version of events. Namely, Chambliss referred to the computers set up for the committee investigation as “CIA computers,” rather than the committee’s computers. That characterization is important, because if they’re the CIA’s computers, than the CIA didn’t engage in any spying when it searched them. Chambliss also said a “special investigator” may be needed, despite the fact that the Department of Justice is already looking into the matter. 

Chambliss also noted that Republican staffers didn’t participate in the Senate investigation into Bush-era torture. In fact, Chambliss was the only member of the committee who voted against opening the investigation in the first place. Republicans on the committee later withdrew from the investigation, after Attorney General Eric Holder began probing into whether anyone at the CIA had broken any laws. Holder’s investigation ended fruitlessly. 

That didn’t stop Chambliss for crediting torture with the operation that ended with Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011. “There has been a lot of debate in this country about our detention and interrogation policy, but this is probably one of the clearest examples of the extraordinary value of the information we have been able to gather from the CIA’s detention and interrogation program,” Chambliss said at the time. “If we did not have access to this information, Osama bin Laden would likely still be operating undetected today.”

That’s contrary to a letter CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote at the time, which disputes Chambliss’s assumption that the information that lead to bin Laden’s whereabouts came from torture. 

Republicans have also begun a whisper campaign alleging that Colorado Democrat Sen. Mark Udall somehow broke committee rules when he vaguely referred to the CIA taking “unprecedented action” against the intelligence committee in a March 4 letter to the White House, which helped drive the dispute between the CIA and the Senate intelligence committee out into the open. Thursday afternoon, Udall released his hold on the nomination of Caroline Krass to be the CIA’s top lawyer saying that the current acting general counsel–who asked the Department of Justice to look into whether or not Senate staff broke the law–had to be replaced because of his “efforts to intimidate Senate Intelligence Committee staff” and his proximity to the Bush-era torture program the committee was investigating.

Senate Republicans are treading carefully, but there are obvious political advantages for the GOP to drawing this dispute out as long as possible. Most Republicans, like Chambliss, have no moral objections to torture of terror suspects and want to burnish the Bush legacy by discrediting Senate Democrats’ report critical of the CIA program. A public fight between the intelligence committee Democrats and the CIA gives Republicans the opportunity to paint Democrats facing tough re election races – like Udall – as weak on national security. And GOP Senators have to be delighted at the possibility of driving a wedge between CIA Director John Brennan, one of Obama’s closest counterterrorism advisers –  and someone who you could almost literally say knows where the bodies are buried – and the White House. 

No surprise then, that Republicans, who have characterized every minor presidential declaration and regulatory decision from the White House as a dictatorial power grab, are being far more cautious about what may turn out to be a genuine constitutional crisis.

CIA

Republicans back CIA in Senate spying showdown