Nasty CIA/Senate Spying Showdown Could Get Uglier

Dianne Feinstein 2
Senator Dianne Feinstein is accusing the CIA of illegally hacking into the panel’s files and “intimidating” her staffers with Justice Department referrals Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In the early 1980s, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence discovered that a staffer had taken home hundreds of pages of highly classified documents covering decades of CIA operations. It asked the spy agency for a damage assessment. To its great surprise—and in sharp contrast to this week’s rolling shootout between the CIA and SSCI chair Dianne Feinstein—the panel was told there was nothing to worry about.

It was later learned that the “friend and godfather” of Ted Ralston, the staffer who stole the documents, was none other than Bobby Ray Inman, the CIA’s then-deputy director and a former head of the NSA. “For all practical purposes,” the panel's chief of staff concluded, according to Bob Woodward's account in Veil: The Wars of the CIA, 1971-1987, “Ralston had been Inman’s spy on the Senate Intelligence Committee about committee activities and plans.” Without a finding of damage, of course, Ralston could not be charged, and perhaps more important, the dirty laundry could not be aired.

What a difference a few decades make. Today, with unintentional irony, the CIA wants the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into whether Senate intelligence committee staffers filched a few CIA internal documents that allegedly contradict rosier official views of its “enhanced interrogation” program. And Feinstein is accusing the CIA of illegally hacking into the panel’s files and “intimidating” her staffers with Justice Department referrals. Bemused FBI agents may soon be taking statements from both sides.

The contretemps marks a new low in relations between the CIA and Congress, but it’s hardly unprecedented. As far back as 1947, even before the CIA was formally chartered, the spooks’ man on the Hill was pilfering documents related to their future, according to David M. Barrett, author of The CIA and Congress: The Untold Story from Truman to Kennedy.  Walter Pforzheimer “had a House staffer ‘borrow’ a secret transcript from a committee safe so [they] could see what others were testifying,” Barrett tells Newsweek. Not only that, when Pforzheimer found out that committee witnesses often repaired to a certain hotel to discuss the day’s events, he recruited a bartender to eavesdrop on them.

In the late 1970s, the CIA appointed a liaison officer,George Joannides, to the select House committee investigating the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Joannides had a conflict of interest the panel wasn’t told about: In 1963, he had been the CIA’s handler for an anti-Castro group linked to accused JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. “The committee’s researchers immediately complained to me that Joannides was, in fact, not facilitating but obstructing our obtaining of documents …” the committee’s chief counsel, G. Robert Blakey later said in a PBS Frontline documentary. “I now no longer believe anything the [CIA] told the committee…. “ which, by the way, concluded that the CIA had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination.

“Attempting to penetrate the oversight committees' work is business as usual for the CIA," says a retired former staffer who discussed the sensitive issue only on terms of anonymity. "We dealt with it during investigations and many budget cycles.”

As for the Feinstein matter, says another former committee staffer on condition he not be identified, “it seems that the agency wasn't so much as spying, as trying to glean insights into the direction of the Senate investigation, in order to be prepared for a response and to explain away the findings.

“And, don't forget the common response of the agency when confronted,” he adds. “Admit nothing, deny everything, and make counter-accusations.”

Feinstein’s ire was further raised by the fact that the agency lawyer who asked the Justice Department to investigate her staff, Acting General Counsel Robert Eatinger, was the chief lawyer for the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, which managed the detention and interrogation program that the committee has been investigating.

The CIA strongly rejects any characterizations of its audit of the SSCI documents as a “penetration” or “spying.” Feinstein had agreed to a joint investigation of the missing documents in January, then “changed her mind,” a US. official tells Newsweek. The California Democrat’s recent accusations that the agency was spying on the committee’s work, he says on condition of anonymity, are a smokescreen to obscure the fact that the SSCI stole the documents at least three years earlier.   

“It’s very serious,” Loch Johnson, a leading intelligence historian at the University of Georgia, says of the CIA-Feinstein brawl. In the mid-1990s, Johnson worked on the so-called Aspin-Brown Commission, named for two former defense secretaries, which was set up to pursue intelligence reform following the disastrous U.S. intervention in Somalia (dramatized in the movie Blackhawk Down). The CIA demanded the panel use the agency’s computers to look at its documents, he recalls, “and I always wondered if my every keystroke wasn’t going directly to them.” Such commissions, as well as the intelligence oversight committees, he noted, are laced with on-loan or former CIA personnel who can function as the agency’s eyes and ears or influence a panel’s direction—on top of senators who read from the CIA’s script.

“I hope Feinstein has the nerve” to finish her fight with the CIA, Johnson tells Newsweek.

If the senator and John Brennan do go to the mat, there’s little doubt who will win, says a former CIA congressional relations chief: It’ll be the four-term Democrat. “Getting into a feud with any member of Congress is a bad deal,” says Joseph Wippl, a 30-year CIA veteran who now teaches international relations at Boston University. “They have a way of getting retribution because they are there a long time and tend to have long memories.” He advises his former CIA comrades to “do everything they could” to pacify Feinstein.

“Never, ever show contempt for Congress or any of its members,” he says. “They are elected and we aren’t."

Newsweek contributing editor Jeff Stein writes SpyTalk from Washington, DC.