To expose torture, Dianne Feinstein fought the C.I.A.—and the White House
By Connie Bruck
Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic senator from California, is making a late career of not quite pleasing anyone. After five decades in politics, Feinstein, at eighty-one, is the oldest sitting member of the Senate, where a late term is often less a valedictory than a chance for activism: think of Edward Kennedy or Mitch McConnell. With its elaborate rankings and deferential codes, the Senate rewards longevity; senior members have better committee seats, more loyal patrons, first choice of desk space in the chamber. As they near retirement age—whatever that means, in an institution where nearly a quarter of the members are over seventy—senators can hope to change a thing or two.
When Barack Obama took office, on January 20, 2009, the Democrats held the Senate, and Feinstein had just become chairman of the powerful Intelligence Committee. At Obama’s inaugural ceremony, she delivered the welcoming remarks, standing before an eager crowd and declaring, “Future generations will mark this morning as the turning point for real and necessary change in our nation.” Skeptics on the National Mall might have noted that this was not a novel sentiment in such speeches, but for Feinstein it was an earnest indicator of political engagement. As the Bush Administration came to an end, the country was reconsidering the decisions of the previous eight years, particularly the ethics of the War on Terror.
Feinstein is sometimes described as a centrist, but it is because her views are varied, not because they are mild; she thinks of herself, more accurately, as a pragmatist. Especially in recent years, on issues she cares deeply about, she will take positions that other senators do not. Feinstein has pursued a deal to prevent Iran from building nuclear arms more intently than any of her colleagues. In March, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress, in the hope of averting a possible deal, Feinstein appeared on “Meet the Press” and said, “What Prime Minister Netanyahu did here was something no ally of the United States would have done.” When I saw her the next day, she told me, “For Netanyahu to come here with a clear view of preventing an agreement was really inappropriate. Particularly because this President’s Administration has provided more than twenty-five billion dollars to Israel, far more than to any other country.”
Although Feinstein mostly votes with the Democrats, she is less predictable than many of her colleagues. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, she voted to confirm several of President George W. Bush’s nominees. In 2007, she endorsed Michael Mukasey for attorney general—even as he dodged the question of whether waterboarding is torture, saying only, “If it amounts to torture, then it is not constitutional.” A Democrat from hyper-liberal San Francisco, she has persistently defended government surveillance programs and targeted killings by drones, and she has been one of the C.I.A.’s most faithful supporters. Last year, after President Obama called to move authority for drone strikes from the C.I.A. to the Defense Department, Feinstein placed a classified amendment in a spending bill that helped keep the program where it was. When the activist Edward Snowden revealed that the N.S.A. had amassed the phone records of vast numbers of American citizens, he was hailed on the left as a whistle-blower. Feinstein said, “I don’t look at this as being a whistle-blower. I think it’s an act of treason.” Advocates for human rights and civil liberties responded with angry editorials. The journalist Glenn Greenwald has said that her “disgusting rhetoric recalls the worst of Dick Cheney.”
The former Secretary of State George Shultz, who has raised money for Feinstein’s campaigns from Republican friends in California, told me, “Dianne is not really bipartisan so much as nonpartisan.” Slightly formal in style, she adheres faithfully to procedure and protocol; she believes in settling disputes privately, and by argument rather than by force. Even in less than momentous situations, she is a dogged negotiator. William Luers, a former ambassador and the head of the Iran Project, recalled, “I don’t think anyone has a meeting with her where she says, ‘I’m with you all the way.’ Rather, she says, ‘I’m with you, but you have to understand under what terms.’ ”
In her office recently, she described how she broke with the C.I.A. over the detention and interrogation program that began in the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. From the first time Feinstein was briefed about the program, she opposed it. On September 6, 2006, Michael Hayden, the C.I.A. director, appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee and described a network of “black sites”: secret facilities where C.I.A. interrogators subjected detainees to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” seeking information about possible terrorist attacks. Hayden, self-assured and pugnacious, insisted that the interrogations were carefully run and unassailably effective. Afterward, Feinstein wrote to him that his testimony was “extraordinarily problematic,” and that she was “unable to understand why the C.I.A. needs to maintain this program.” In November, when Hayden appeared before the committee again, Feinstein peppered him with questions. She wanted to know how the agency guarded against abuse, whether detainees were stripped of their clothes, whether they were fed during periods of sleep deprivation. Although she and several colleagues raised objections, Hayden, not long afterward, told a meeting of foreign diplomats, “This is not C.I.A.’s program. This is not the President’s program. This is America’s program.”
In December, 2007, the Times revealed that C.I.A. officers had secretly destroyed videotapes of interrogations, against the advice of White House officials. A few days later, Hayden, insisting to the Intelligence Committee that there had been no “destruction of evidence,” turned over cables related to those taped interrogations. For months, two committee staff members reviewed the cables, which described the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, whom the C.I.A. suspected was a high-ranking Al Qaeda member, and of a detainee named Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
In February, 2009, the staff members appeared before the committee and described what they had found. Nearly twenty-four hours a day for twenty days, Abu Zubaydah was stripped naked and subjected to multiple “enhanced” techniques: slammed into a wall, slapped, deprived of sleep, confined in a coffin-size box, forced into painful postures. He was also waterboarded at least eighty-three times. Two psychologists, contracted by the C.I.A. to develop and run the interrogation program, reported that Abu Zubaydah was “ready to talk” during the first exposure, but “we chose to expose him over and over until we had a high degree of confidence he wouldn’t hold back.” After the first waterboarding sessions, a C.I.A. official wrote, “Several on the team profoundly affected . . . some to the point of tears.” By the seventh day, the C.I.A. team had informed headquarters that it was unlikely Abu Zubaydah had the threat information the agency was seeking, but the team was instructed to continue. During one waterboarding session, investigators found later, Abu Zubaydah “became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”
Nashiri was subjected to similar measures. Investigators determined that he was put in a “standing stress position,” with “his hands affixed over his head,” for at least two days. It was implied that his mother would be brought before him and sexually abused. He was waterboarded. After each session, his interrogators reported that he was coöperative, but officials told them to persist, because he had not provided information on imminent attacks. When the interrogators objected, they were replaced.
described the interrogations as “ugly, visceral.” As the new chairman of the committee, she had the authority to try to effect change. “You set the table, so to speak,” she said recently. “You make the determinations, what will come up, what the committee will do.” She called for a full investigation of the C.I.A. program, and the committee voted in favor of it, 14–1. That was the genesis of what became known as the torture report, a sixty-seven-hundred-page tome, laden with footnotes. When the report was completed, in December, 2012, it included an appendix devoted to Hayden, detailing more than thirty misstatements in one session of his testimony. (Hayden argues that the Democrats misinterpreted the intent of his testimony, saying, “I described the norms—how things were supposed to work—and they found the exceptions.”)
Michael Schiffer, who was a member of Feinstein’s staff for a decade, told me that Feinstein retains a stubborn, perhaps naïve faith that the system is run by people who are trying to do the right thing for the country. “When that faith is shaken, she is really determined to do something about it,” he said. “It was that faith that caused her to be so enraged about torture.” A former intelligence officer, who knew Feinstein from her years on the Intelligence Committee, saw her determination a little differently: “The worst thing, from Dianne Feinstein’s perspective, is trying to keep her from doing her job of oversight. And if you lie to her that’s bad.”
When Obama took office, Feinstein assumed that he would be a strong ally. During the campaign, he had excoriated the Bush Administration for the C.I.A.’s interrogation program, forthrightly calling the interrogation tactics “torture.” On his second day in the White House, he issued an executive order that banned C.I.A. detention and effectively prohibited the use of waterboarding and other coercive techniques. In the end, though, what Feinstein’s group released was not the full report but a five-hundred-page executive summary, with a fraction of the meticulous, excruciating details. The summary’s release, last December, came after an eleven-month battle, in which Feinstein and several other Democrats on the committee fought strenuously against the C.I.A.—and, unexpectedly, the Obama White House.
While many of those who had condemned Feinstein for her position on the N.S.A. praised her work on the report, the intelligence community, led by her former allies at the C.I.A., vilified her. Jeff Duncan, a Republican congressman from South Carolina, said that she was “as much a traitor to this country at this point” as Snowden was. Feinstein told me in her office that the torture report was the most important work of her career. But the process of getting it released, with all of the attendant conflict and compromise, was surely not the decisive victory she hoped for. Amy Zegart, an intelligence scholar at Stanford, said, “I can’t think of anyone else who’s been beaten up by so many different factions, over so many different issues, in such a short period of time.”
Feinstein began negotiating the terms of the committee’s investigation in the spring of 2009, during an unusual period of openness. The C.I.A. had a new director, Leon Panetta, a former congressman, whom Obama had instructed to improve the agency’s relationship with the legislature. (Panetta told a colleague that the directive was to “make love to Congress.”) Panetta agreed to give the committee access to millions of pages of documents: unredacted operational cables, e-mails, memos.
But many members of the C.I.A. distrusted the inquiry from the beginning. “Feinstein’s report started as an attempt to get to the bottom of whether these ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were valuable,” the former intelligence officer told me. “For many at the agency, just asking the question is unpatriotic.” The agency arranged for the Senate staff to work on the report not in the committee’s secure space, in the Hart Senate Office Building, but in a secret C.I.A. facility in northern Virginia, using a computer system that the C.I.A. provided.
Six Republicans on the committee voted in favor of the investigation, but by the fall of 2009 they had recused themselves. Democratic staff members worked alone at the C.I.A. site for three and a half years. In December, 2012, the committee approved the final report (eight Democrats and one Republican voted yes) and sent it to President Obama. The report concluded that the enhanced techniques were far more brutal than the agency had disclosed, and were an ineffective means of obtaining accurate information. The C.I.A. had justified them by enumerating terrorist plots that had been “thwarted.” The report examined twenty of these examples and found them “wrong in fundamental respects.”
Feinstein asked the White House to gather comments from the executive branch and respond by mid-February. Instead, the response arrived in June, sent by the C.I.A. By then, the agency had a new, less congenial director: John Brennan, a C.I.A. veteran who had served as Obama’s counterterrorism adviser. Brennan was upset about the inquiry at the start, according to a former White House official: “Feinstein had gotten Panetta to give up code names, references to other countries, spycraft stuff. Brennan was very concerned about people’s lives.” The response, which Brennan delivered personally to Feinstein and to the committee’s Republican vice-chairman, Saxby Chambliss, acknowledged that there had been “lapses,” and that some employees were not held accountable. But it strongly disputed the report’s major findings. For several months, the Senate staff members met with their C.I.A. counterparts to review the complaints. Relations grew only more poisonous.
On January 15th, Brennan summoned Feinstein and Chambliss to Room 217, a secure office in the Capitol, for an urgent meeting. Chambliss, a conservative from Moultrie, Georgia, recalled that the meeting began cordially but that Brennan soon began to display “an edge.” He told the two senators that, for several days, C.I.A. officials had been searching hard drives in a computer system that the committee’s staff members maintained at the C.I.A. site in Virginia. They had found copies of sensitive documents—which, he charged, the staff had acquired by hacking into the agency’s computer system. The atmosphere grew tense. “John was very forthright in his opinion that the staff had gone into C.I.A. computers,” Chambliss said. “John didn’t handle that right.”
The files that Brennan was concerned with were known in the agency as the Panetta review. As the C.I.A. turned over records to the committee, Panetta had ordered a team of his own to vet them, in an attempt to predict the committee’s findings. It was, in effect, the agency’s best effort to critique itself as unsparingly as the Senate staff would, and, according to people who have read it, it largely accorded with the congressional report. (The C.I.A. has countered that the Panetta team examined only about half the documents that were given to the committee, and that the review was an unapproved draft.) Senator Mark Udall, one of the Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, later said that the Panetta review—like the Senate report—found that, in an effort to justify torture, the C.I.A. repeatedly provided inaccurate information to Congress and the President about the efficacy of the enhanced techniques.
A week before Feinstein and Chambliss met with Brennan, a C.I.A. official had told him that the Senate investigators might have obtained the Panetta review. Brennan ordered an investigation, and the next day an agency official reported that five Senate investigators had accessed the documents “thousands of times.” According to a memo from that official, included in a report by the C.I.A. inspector general, Brennan told him to “pursue all available options to determine how the documents came to be on the [Senate] side of the system.” That Saturday, the official recalled, Brennan called him at home, to urge him to find answers by “whatever means necessary.” (Brennan later told the inspector general that he “would never use those words.”)
As Brennan recounted the charges to Feinstein and Chambliss, he grew more agitated. Senator Jay Rockefeller, Feinstein’s predecessor as chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said, “Brennan has such an explosive temper. His face turns really red. Dianne seems to bring that out in him—because she’s so West Coast, calm, cool, stately.” Brennan said that the Senate staffers had printed out copies of the documents, and demanded that Feinstein return every one to the C.I.A.
Feinstein, recalling the meeting, said, “That was terrible! It was something I never expected to see in my government.” Senator Martin Heinrich, another Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, described her as alarmed, but also galvanized: “I think she knew, after that meeting, that it was going to be a real battle to bring the report out.” It was all the more extraordinary, he continued, because “I can honestly say I don’t know a bigger booster of the C.I.A. than Senator Feinstein.”
During the long process of producing the report, Feinstein had immersed herself in memos and drafts. “You remember that movie ‘The Constant Gardener’?” Rockefeller said. “Dianne is the constant student.” Throughout, she remained a staunch supporter of the C.I.A., stressing that a relatively small number of employees were involved in the interrogation program. Obama had ended the program in January, 2009; she was merely trying to make sure that it was never repeated. Even Chambliss—who cast the sole vote against assembling the torture report, arguing that it was time to move forward—emphasized that he and Feinstein have otherwise been united in support of the intelligence community. After he became vice-chairman of the committee, in 2010, he said, “Dianne and I shared the common interest of making sure we did everything we could to give tools to our intelligence community to be able to protect Americans.” He added, “She might not agree with me. But she was not automatically going to be on the Democratic side of whatever the issue was.” Indeed, several of Feinstein’s Democratic colleagues on the committee—Martin Heinrich, Ron Wyden, and Mark Udall—opposed her on surveillance, and had pushed her to get the entire torture report declassified. Feinstein, concerned that the information in the full report would be too inflammatory, decided that the executive summary sufficed for the time being.
Two days after the meeting with Brennan, Feinstein wrote to him, urging him to stop investigating her staff, and noting that the C.I.A.’s search could well have violated constitutional principles of separation of powers. She and Chambliss wrote several more letters, asking who had authorized the searches, under what legal authority, and who had carried them out. For weeks, Brennan did not respond.
Feinstein spoke with officials at the White House and at the Department of Justice, and with the Senate legal counsel. In late January, the C.I.A. inspector general, David Buckley, learned about the search, and told Brennan that he was going to investigate the C.I.A.’s actions. According to three Senate aides, Brennan immediately told Buckley that he wanted him to conduct the investigation. “Publicly, Brennan appeared to be grabbing the situation by the horns, but he was actually pushed into it,” one aide said. (The agency maintains that Brennan requested the inquiry unprompted.)
Heinrich, Wyden, and Udall wanted to confront Brennan publicly, but Feinstein refused. Then, on January 29th, they had an opportunity: the Senate Intelligence Committee held its annual hearing on threat assessments, and Brennan was one of the witnesses. Heinrich told Brennan that the agency’s recent actions were “meant to intimidate, deflect, and thwart legitimate oversight.” When he asked about the Panetta review, Brennan deflected the question, saying that he would address the matter with the committee “at the appropriate time, and not at a threat-assessment hearing.”
“Thank you, Mr. Brennan,” Feinstein said. “I believe that’s appropriate.”
Udall asked Brennan if he was aware of the Panetta review when he provided the C.I.A.’s response to the committee, and Brennan said, “I had not gone through it.” Udall, noting that the answer “strikes me as a bit improbable,” pressed forward. “Are you saying that the C.I.A. officers who were asked to produce this internal review got it wrong, just like you said the committee got it wrong? We had sixty-three hundred pages, six million documents, thirty-five thousand five hundred footnotes.” Brennan again said that he would respond “at the appropriate time.”
Feinstein spoke to Udall, off-microphone.
“Madam chair, I still have two minutes remaining,” Udall protested.
Feinstein spoke to him again, and then, loudly enough to be heard, ordered, “Do.” Udall moved to another subject.
At the hearing, Brennan was imperturbable. When Wyden, Feinstein’s strongest adversary on privacy issues, asked whether the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act applies to the C.I.A., Brennan said, “I would have to look into what that act actually calls for and its applicability to C.I.A.’s authorities. And I’ll be happy to get back to you, Senator, on that.”
The torture issue has dogged Brennan. Obama, at the beginning of his first term, had wanted to make him director of the C.I.A., but backed away after human-rights advocates pointed out that Brennan had been the agency’s deputy executive director from 2001 to 2003, when many of the worst abuses occurred. (Brennan has said that he had “some visibility into some of the activities” of the detention program but that he was “not in the chain of command.”) Instead, Obama brought Brennan into the White House, as his counterterrorism adviser. Brennan told Charlie Rose recently that in those early days Obama “did not have a good deal of experience” with intelligence-related subjects, but that in the intervening years he had “gone to school and understands the complexities.” Brennan met with Obama frequently, helping to orchestrate a vast expansion of the targeted-killing program, and shaping the various “kill lists.” In the White House, he was described by other officials as Obama’s “father confessor,” who allowed the President comfort as his decisions took the lives of thousands of suspected militants, along with an unknown number of civilians.
“John had a Jesuit education, he is a practicing Catholic, and I’ve heard him in meetings at the agency, talking about the theories of just war,” a former C.I.A. officer who has known Brennan for many years said. “He weighs things carefully.” The former intelligence officer said that Brennan was “a Dudley-Do-Right character, a guy who is convinced he is wearing the white hat. He has always wanted to be close to power—because, I think, he is convinced he can do good by being there.”
Robert Grenier, the former director of the C.I.A. Counterterrorism Center, has been friendly with Brennan since they were junior officers, and he has described Brennan as “highly ambitious and a talented bureaucratic infighter.” He told me that the agency’s leaders had such confidence in Brennan that, in 1996, they promoted him from an analyst to Riyadh station chief. The political skills that made him a good choice for that position were evident in his White House job, Grenier continued. “I’ve never seen anyone from that perch exert the kind of influence and even, to a certain extent, direct control,” he said, citing the targeted-killing program. “Unlike most of his predecessors, he actually understands the whole system from the inside. So he was in a position, with the weight of the President behind him, to really push himself into the middle of the process, and to control it.”
When Obama nominated Brennan as C.I.A. director, in January, 2013, Brennan made his way dexterously through the confirmation process. During a hearing before the Intelligence Committee, Chambliss mentioned a private conversation in which Brennan had disparaged the committee’s report as “a prosecutor’s brief, written with an eye toward finding problems.” Rockefeller recounted a quite different conversation. “You told me that you were shocked at some of what you read,” he told Brennan. “I would hope . . . that you will make parts of this . . . required reading for your senior personnel so they can go through the same experience you went through. Are you willing to do that?”
“Yes, Senator,” Brennan replied. “I am looking forward to taking advantage of whatever lessons come out of this chapter in our history and this committee’s report.”
At Langley, Brennan’s performance caused consternation. “Career people back at the C.I.A., watching this, were dismayed,” John Rizzo, the agency’s former acting general counsel, recalled. “He seemed overly in agreement with the Democrats, and he made preliminary comments about what he’d seen in the report—said it was shocking.” At the hearing, Brennan earnestly promised to be forthcoming with the committee, and to “speak truth about power.” Early in his testimony, he acknowledged that there was a “trust deficit” between the committee and the C.I.A. “If I am confirmed,” he said, “I would make it my goal on day one of my tenure and every day thereafter to strengthen the trust between us.”
At the close of the hearing, Feinstein told Brennan, “I’ve sat through a number of these hearings; I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone more forthright or more honest or more direct.”
In late January, 2014, as the fight over the C.I.A.’s search of the Senate computers continued, Brennan presented a security briefing to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a strong supporter of the torture report, and Reid offered some unsolicited advice. “He told Brennan, ‘You’re wrong here,’ ” a senior Senate staffer recalled. “ ‘There is no justification for breaking into the staff computers. Just say you did it. Say you’re sorry. John, it’s Dianne Feinstein. You are questioning her credibility, and she is an unimpeachable person.’ But Brennan said no. He was defiant.”
Instead, Brennan intensified his attack. On February 7th, the C.I.A.’s acting general counsel, Robert Eatinger, filed a crimes report with the Department of Justice. He stated that information made available to him suggested that a Senate staff member had exploited a security vulnerability “to access, copy, and bring across the firewall C.I.A. documents to which he or she did not have authorized access,” and that at least four other staff members had “accessed and printed these C.I.A. documents on multiple occasions.”
According to Feinstein, the staff had identified the Panetta documents sometime in 2010 by using a search tool that the C.I.A. had provided. She told me that her staff members were unnerved by the C.I.A.’s attempt to instigate criminal charges. Still, she resisted going public. “Feinstein worked every internal lever she possibly could,” the Senate aide said. “It was frustrating to some of us, because we thought the only way you could have accountability over the C.I.A. was to start informing the public.”
Feinstein’s staff wrote a speech about the C.I.A.-Senate fight for her to deliver on the Senate floor, but for several weeks she resisted. In early March, articles about the conflict appeared in the press, including two in which unnamed sources suggested that the committee staffers had “hacked” into the C.I.A. network to obtain the Panetta review and that the C.I.A. had spied on the Senate staff’s computers. Brennan said, “I am deeply dismayed that some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about C.I.A. actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts.” On the weekend of March 8th, Reid called Feinstein several times. “She was saying, ‘I want to be fair, I want to be in the middle—I’m chairman,’ ” the senior Senate staffer recalled. “And Senator Reid was saying, ‘Look, you can’t stand by anymore! The C.I.A. is leaking stuff. They’re making your staff out to be the bad guys!’ ”
Feinstein reserved time on the Senate floor for Tuesday, March 11th, but even that morning her staff was not certain that she would give the speech. Ultimately, she told me, in her efforts to reach a private resolution with Brennan, “there comes a point where the stonewalling is such that you have to break through.” At about 9 a.m., Feinstein, dressed in a purple suit, walked to the lectern. “Let me say up front that I come to the Senate floor reluctantly,” she began. As her anger gradually built, the room was still. She summarily rejected the notion that her staff had hacked into C.I.A. computers; the documents had appeared on the Senate side of the network, and her staff members had printed them out. In 2013, Feinstein said, when the C.I.A. delivered its response to the report, the staff members noted major disparities with the Panetta review. The terms that she had originally negotiated with Panetta suggested that the C.I.A. had to approve any documents that left the facility in Virginia. But the staff members, who knew that the agency had rescinded hundreds of files from the computer system, including the Panetta review, were afraid that it would confiscate the printouts. They redacted the names of non-supervisory C.I.A. personnel, along with information that might help locate detention sites, and then hauled the documents to the secure committee space in the Hart Building. Inside an inner office, they locked the documents in a safe.
Feinstein said that the C.I.A.’s search of the staff’s computers might well have violated the constitutional principle of separation of powers, as well as the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and an executive order that prohibits the C.I.A. from conducting domestic searches or surveillance. The crimes report that the C.I.A. had filed with the Department of Justice, she said, was an effort “to intimidate this staff.” She noted that it had been filed by the C.I.A.’s acting general counsel, who had been a lawyer in the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, and was mentioned by name more than sixteen hundred times in the report. “How this is resolved,” she concluded, “will show . . . whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.”
After Feinstein spoke, she went to the Senate Democratic Caucus weekly lunch. As she entered the room, her colleagues gave her a standing ovation. The Senate aide said, “I think it made her feel like, O.K., I’ve done the right thing. But then, within forty-eight or seventy-two hours, she was hearing from Chambliss and other Republican members of the committee: ‘Why did you have to go out there and do that? It was so partisan of you!’ And she started to feel, again, like, Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.”
Brennan, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations later that morning, said, “As far as the allegations of C.I.A. hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s—that’s just beyond the—you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.” Although he stammered slightly, he spoke with his customary conviction, seeming disturbed only by the temerity of the accusation. Several weeks later, on Fox News, the former C.I.A. director Michael Hayden dismissed Feinstein as “emotional.”
On the morning of November 27, 1978, Dianne Feinstein, then forty-five years old, told reporters in the San Francisco City Hall press room that she was thinking about getting out of politics. She had been elected to the board of supervisors in 1969, and had become its first woman president. But she failed in a bid to become mayor in 1971 and again in 1975; the second time, she did not make the runoff. She had entered that race as the front-runner, so “it was a big shock to the town, and to her,” Jerry Roberts, who covered Feinstein’s career for the San Francisco Chronicle, said. “She really got squeezed between the left and the right.” Her opponents were George Moscone, a progressive aligned with the labor movement, and John Barbagelata, whom Roberts described as “sort of a Tea Party precursor.” The fight was strenuous. “In the middle was Dianne, basically a technocrat, saying, ‘Let’s have civility.’ ” Feinstein told me she concluded that she was not electable.
An hour after the press conference, Feinstein, in her small office on the second floor of City Hall, saw her fellow-supervisor Dan White run past. White, a former police officer, had resigned from the board three weeks earlier, but he wanted his job back. She called out to him, but he ignored her. Minutes later, she heard gunshots and smelled cordite. She went to her door and saw White race out of the building. In an office down the hall, she found Supervisor Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay elected official, face down on the floor, surrounded by blood; she reached for his neck, hoping to find a pulse, and her finger went through a bullet hole. She soon learned what had happened: after Moscone refused to give White his job back, White had shot him and then gone on to Milk’s office.
Feinstein grew up in San Francisco, and her private life captured something of the city’s combination of propriety and license. Her father, a professor of medicine, was Jewish; her mother, a volatile, emotionally unstable woman from St. Petersburg, was Russian Orthodox. When Feinstein was entering ninth grade, her mother enrolled her in the exclusive Convent of the Sacred Heart, reasoning that she would benefit from exposure to the social élite. At the convent, situated in a mansion in the Pacific Heights neighborhood, the pupils wore white gloves and curtsied to their instructors. The nuns emphasized to the students that their purpose was to make a difference, and that they should not be limited by their gender. Although Feinstein was never a committed feminist, she resisted restrictions in her professional life. At Stanford, she was the vice-president of her class—the highest office a woman could hold. After graduating, in 1956, she eloped with a prosecutor named Jack Berman, and had a daughter, Katherine; when they divorced, three years later, Feinstein carried on for a time as a single mother. Then, in 1962, she married Bertram Feinstein, a neurosurgeon twenty years her senior.
Soon after finding Milk’s body, Feinstein appeared near the doors of City Hall, where a large crowd had gathered. “It is my duty to make this announcement,” she said. “Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed.” People shouted in horror, and Feinstein struggled to keep her composure. Her lips moved silently, and then she said, “The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”
Feinstein, as president of the board of supervisors, became mayor, and served out Moscone’s term, presiding over a city that was torn apart—as she later said, “some of it sorrow, some of it hate.” Just days before the murders, nine hundred followers of the minister Jim Jones, many of them from San Francisco, had committed suicide at Jonestown, in Guyana. In the previous few years, a terrorist group called the New World Liberation Front had carried out scores of bombings, some of which targeted Feinstein and other supervisors. “The lesson Dianne took from this craziness was that she had been right—that all this polarization and bitterness that was extant in the town had now led to these murders,” Roberts said. “That’s when she started talking about how the center is so important.”
While Feinstein was the acting mayor, Milk’s killer was convicted of manslaughter, rather than murder, and the city erupted in a riot. “Twelve squad cars were blown up, the stores were looted, and the gay community just went nuts,” Feinstein recalled. “The hatred was so big, we really had to bring the bricks of the city together again, and it was difficult.” She was elected mayor in 1979 and again in 1983. When the AIDS crisis began, she said, “I had to close down the bathhouses. You learn how to do the tough stuff and bring people together at the same time.” She worked closely with the city’s downtown business establishment and with law enforcement; having served on a citywide crime commission, she describes herself as “very police-oriented, and very public-safety-oriented.” Jerry Roberts recalled, “We used to say, Dianne’s never met a uniform she didn’t like. She carried a fire-department turnout coat in the trunk of her car, so if there was a fire she heard about on her scanner she could get out and take a look.”
In 1990, Feinstein ran for governor of California. Nine tumultuous years as mayor had honed her instinct for the political center. At the state Democratic Party convention, packed with activists from the left, Feinstein stated that she unequivocally supported the death penalty. The crowd booed her—to the delight of her political consultants. That mass denunciation became a thirty-second TV spot, designed to reach the majority of California voters, who agreed with her.
In the weeks before the primary, Feinstein was far behind, but she was able to make a concerted push. Her second husband had died in 1978, and two years later she married Richard Blum, a wealthy investor. Now she and Blum loaned her campaign three million dollars, some of which paid for statewide television ads showing a clip of Feinstein announcing that Moscone and Milk had been assassinated. Feinstein won the primary, then narrowly lost to the Republican candidate, Pete Wilson.
Despite her loss, Feinstein was now sure that she was electable—perhaps, even, to the highest office. In 1992, she ran for the Senate against an incumbent Republican, John Seymour. In their biggest debate, her political consultant Bill Carrick recalled, Seymour charged that Feinstein, a strong advocate of gun control, had owned a handgun. “Dianne explained that at one point the New World Liberation Front had planted a bomb in a flower box outside her daughter Katherine’s bedroom window,” Carrick said. “And, yes, she had gotten a gun. But, she said, after a while she realized it would do no good. She launched a citywide campaign, urging San Franciscans to turn in their guns. And she concluded, ‘The Pope was coming to town. So we melted down all these guns we’d collected and gave them to him, in the form of a cross.’ ” Feinstein won easily.
As a mayor, Feinstein had relished executive decision-making, but in the Senate she had to generate support among ninety-nine colleagues. Shortly after arriving, she secured a seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and told its chairman, Senator Joe Biden, that she wanted to sponsor legislation to ban assault weapons. Michael Schiffer, her former staff member, told me, “The leadership basically said, If you want to do this, terrific—you’re on your own. She went out, senator to senator, buttonholed people, found out what was necessary to cobble together enough votes.” She sent a draft of her legislation to the N.R.A. for suggestions; instead, it fought tenaciously against the bill. “I was amazed to see the degree to which the National Rifle Association controls this body,” Feinstein said at the time, betraying her inexperience. The legislation passed, in what was both a surprising achievement and a lesson in compromise. The law stopped the manufacture, sale, and transfer of assault weapons. But it did not remove existing weapons from the streets, and it exempted six hundred and fifty kinds of firearms, including high-powered rifles and shotguns.
Feinstein’s greatest political vulnerability has come from her home life. In December, 1978, the United States and the People’s Republic of China announced the start of diplomatic relations, and Feinstein, who had just become mayor, decided to try to establish a sister-city relationship with Shanghai, China’s leading port and industrial center. Six months later, she led a mayoral delegation to China. Blum, who had been fascinated with Asia since visiting Nepal, in 1968, accompanied her. Feinstein recalled that, after spending time in Shanghai, “we went to Beijing, and we were on the Wall, walking along, and I ran into Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles. I said, ‘Tom, what are you doing here?’ And he said, ‘We’re going to Shanghai,’ to get a sister-city relationship. I said, ‘Been there, done that!’ ”
Feinstein became friends with Shanghai’s mayor, Jiang Zemin, and the two visited each other regularly; Jiang once spent Thanksgiving in San Francisco with Feinstein and Blum. In 1986, Feinstein and Jiang agreed to foster trade and business through corporate partnerships. Soon afterward, Shanghai Pacific Partners, in which Blum was an investor, signed a deal with a state-owned investment entity to create a seventeen-million-dollar apartment-and-retail complex, Golden Bridge Mansion, in a Shanghai suburb. As Feinstein told me, “In my day, China made friends first, and then they did business with their friends.”
In 1993, Jiang became the President of China. Feinstein served as an intermediary for him with the White House, and argued in Congress that Beijing should be granted permanent most-favored-nation trading status. Meanwhile, Blum and a partner raised more than a hundred million dollars to invest, primarily in China. For years, Feinstein was dogged by news stories about the apparent conflict of interest. In 1997, Blum pledged to donate to charity all profits he made from his China investments and, two years later, said that he had ended his personal investments there; however, he continued to manage a partnership that invested in China.
Finally, in 2000, he declared that he would not invest in China or Hong Kong, and that any money he received from managing others’ investments there would also go to charity. But the issue persisted, because his holdings and managed funds were so sprawling and complex that they fell outside the scope of mandatory disclosure forms. In Feinstein’s 2000 race, her Republican challenger, a congressman named Tom Campbell, charged that Blum continued to maintain an interest in at least one company doing business in China. Feinstein dismissed the allegation. She also insisted that there was a “firewall” between her and Blum, and that she made every effort to consult with the Senate Ethics Committee on possible conflicts of interest. “I don’t know what more I can do,” she said. “I mean, get divorced and live in sin, I suppose.”
It was a flippant response, which ignored the obvious: Blum should have resisted the money. But Feinstein was not accustomed to having her integrity called into question. For the most part, her constituents didn’t seem to care. In 1994, Feinstein—tough on gun control, illegal immigration, and crime—was voted California’s most popular politician, and she has held on to that ranking; in 2012, she set a record for the greatest number of popular votes in any Senate election in history.
For months after the torture report was sent to Obama, in December, 2012, the White House issued no clear statement supporting its release. The following April, at the Sedona Forum, in Arizona, Senator John McCain was seated onstage with Vice-President Biden. McCain, a vocal opponent of torture, spoke about how important it was for the report to come out. Biden agreed, but said that there was “an internal debate” in the White House: “Do we go back and do we expose it? Do we lay out who was responsible?” The issue, he said, was “not resolved yet.”
By early 2014, it had become clear that the White House was reluctant to take sides against the C.I.A. According to the official’s memo included in the inspector general’s report, Brennan had notified Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, while his agents were searching the Senate computers; he also informed the White House counsel before the crimes report was filed with the Department of Justice. Obama halted neither action. “I was astonished that the White House let it go that far,” a former White House official told me. “It was such a loss of control.”
After Feinstein’s floor speech in mid-March, 2014, the Intelligence Committee voted to send the report’s executive summary to the White House for a declassification review, anticipating public release. The White House instead said that the C.I.A. would take the lead in redacting information. Feinstein argued that the agency had a conflict of interest—redacting the charges of its own violations—and she appealed to Obama to reconsider. She got no response.
In the six million documents that the C.I.A. had turned over, undercover agents were referred to by their official aliases, and the agency suggested pseudonyms for them that Senate staffers could use. In drafting the report, the staffers used several hundred of those pseudonyms, along with the real names of publicly identified senior C.I.A. officials. Their goal was to create a narrative in which major characters appeared repeatedly, many in various contexts, lending coherence to a complex chain of events and revealing the multifaceted roles that some individuals played. This was not without precedent: previous reports of intelligence failures, including the Church committee report, in 1975, had used pseudonyms for central characters.
But on August 1st, when the C.I.A. delivered the redacted report—a few days before its expected release—Feinstein saw that the agency had redacted all the pseudonyms, arguing that readers might be able to combine them with other details and identify the agency personnel. The report, shot through with black lines, resembled a play where the pivotal actors were unrecognizable from scene to scene, making the action almost impossible to follow. The C.I.A. made one concession. The report had used the real names of the two contract psychologists—already identified in the press—who were paid eighty million dollars to develop the interrogation program. The C.I.A. said that the psychologists could be identified by pseudonyms that the agency had provided.
Feinstein rejected the redacted version, and began negotiating, mainly with Denis McDonough. Since the issue of pseudonyms was the most difficult one, they agreed to leave it for last, and discussed other redactions through the fall. Over Columbus Day weekend, McDonough flew to San Francisco to meet with Feinstein. “This has been a very difficult process,” Feinstein told me, not long afterward. She said that she and McDonough had “settled a lot of problems,” but that some remained, and she was determined not to have the report “decimated.”
Feinstein offered to reduce the number of pseudonyms from several hundred to forty or fifty, but McDonough refused. By mid-November, she was fighting for just fourteen. Many of these people had played major roles in the program and currently occupy high-level positions at the C.I.A. One was Alfreda Bikowsky, an agent who had been named in journalistic accounts as early as 2011. As deputy chief of the unit dedicated to finding Osama bin Laden, Bikowsky had participated in brutal interrogations. She was convinced of the program’s virtues. Its strength, she once wrote, was that potential terrorists expected nothing worse than a “show trial” in America. They “never counted on being detained by us outside the U.S., and being subjected to methods they never dreamed of.”
The former intelligence officer told me, “There was this group of four or five women, at the core of hunting Al Qaeda.” Bikowsky was at the center of it. “They all had this burden of guilt, that they were there and didn’t stop 9/11. They saw their jobs as making America safer—and were willing to go to great lengths.” In statements to the committee in 2006, Porter Goss, the C.I.A. director who preceded Michael Hayden, described the interrogations as “not a brutality. It’s more of an art or a science.” The key, he said, was “knowing what makes someone tick.” He added, “Just the simplest thing will work, a family photograph or something.” In fact, as the report describes, C.I.A. officers threatened at least three detainees with harm to their family members. Other techniques included menacing a subject with a pistol and a cordless drill, and employing “rectal hydration,” which the chief of interrogations later characterized as a marker of “total control over a detainee.” Before one session with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the lead planner of the 9/11 attacks, who was subjected to waterboarding a hundred and eighty-three times, Bikowsky sent an e-mail that referred to him by a nickname: “Mukie is gonna be hatin’ life on this one.”
According to the report, Bikowsky was the chief architect of the C.I.A.’s effort to justify its use of enhanced techniques. In February, 2007, she accompanied Hayden to testify before the Intelligence Committee. The former intelligence officer said that Bikowsky had come because “Hayden was new and didn’t know all the details. She had all the facts stuffed into her head. Unless you knew what questions to ask, she’d run circles around you.” Citing information that she said was obtained from the interrogation program, Bikowsky testified, “There’s no question, in my mind, that having that detainee information has saved hundreds, conservatively speaking, of American lives.” The report lists four major claims she made in the hearing, and provides evidence that all are inaccurate. It also asserts that Bikowsky misled the C.I.A. inspector general and other senior officials about the efficacy of the enhanced techniques. (The C.I.A. stands by all but one of Bikowsky’s claims, and says that her assertions about the techniques reflected a widespread understanding. A spokesman said, “The representations as to the value of the information derived from detainees subject to E.I.T.s”—enhanced interrogation techniques—“were representations made by the agency, not one individual. Suggestions to the contrary only serve to distort the record.”)
The argument over how Bikowsky should be identified in the report was particularly freighted. The main character in the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” was based partly on her, and she was the subject of a Wikipedia page. Still, the C.I.A. and the White House refused to allow a pseudonym for her. She has been promoted to a senior position in the global-jihad unit. “The C.I.A. does not hold people accountable the way I think it should,” Feinstein told me. “You want to support them if the wrong thing happens.” But, she added, that is different from supporting them “for doing wrong.”
On November 20th, McDonough went to a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting, in the Mansfield Room of the Capitol. He was there to brief senators on the President’s immigration policy, but he knew that Feinstein and her colleagues on the Intelligence Committee would want to discuss the torture report. Feinstein delivered a prepared speech, about ten minutes long. “She flat-out called out the White House and the C.I.A.,” the senior Senate staffer recalled. “Then Rockefeller, Wyden, Heinrich, and Udall spoke, and they really went after McDonough.” McDonough, according to the staffer, argued that the report would risk lives, pointing out that, while he had Secret Service protection, C.I.A. families did not. The Senate aide recalled that McDonough defended his impartiality. “He said, ‘Every time I go over to the C.I.A., they tell me I’m doing the Senate’s bidding, and I come over here and you guys tell me I’m doing the C.I.A.’s bidding,’ and neither is true. I’m trying to be an arbitrator.” For many, his protest rang hollow. “Denis and Brennan are very tight, and Denis thinks very highly of Brennan,” someone who knows McDonough well said. “I think whatever Brennan told him, Denis had reason, based on the personal relationship, to trust.” At the close of the meeting, McDonough made it clear that the White House would not allow the remaining, contested pseudonyms to be used, and, if the committee did not agree, the report would not come out.
The pseudonyms for the fourteen key people were deleted. Although Bikowsky was referred to in some places as the “deputy chief of Alec station,” in dozens of other spots any title for her was redacted. Robert Eatinger, the acting general counsel Feinstein mentioned in her floor speech, had all sixteen hundred mentions of his name redacted. It was a bitter defeat, but Feinstein feared that if the report was not released before the Republicans took control of the Senate, in January, 2015, it never would be. Some of her colleagues believed that the White House was deliberately running out the clock. “Obama participated in the slowdown process, and that’s a hard thing to forgive,” Rockefeller said.
On Friday, December 5th, Feinstein had the report sent to the printer, to be released after the weekend. Later that day, she got a call from Secretary of State John Kerry, a good friend. “He talked about the dangers this would cause around the world, which I saw as right out of the White House playbook—or the C.I.A. playbook,” Rockefeller said. Feinstein had heard this argument from McDonough and Brennan many times. But, Rockefeller said, “when it came from Kerry it had a more human sense to it. It got to her.” Rockefeller talked with her over the weekend. “The Kerry call actually turned out to be good, because it made her take her deepest values and square them one against the other—and she came out with the right answer. On Monday, she walked into her office and said, ‘I want the report out.’ ”
During the weekend, the National Counterterrorism Center and other intelligence agencies issued a threat assessment, predicting that the report would inspire violence throughout the world and cause significant damage to U.S. relationships. But when the report was issued nothing happened. I asked Feinstein whether she found the threat assessment suspect at the time. “Well, what I thought was that it was a little bit of intimidation.” She paused. “Not a little bit. I thought it was just intimidation.”
On Tuesday, December 9, 2014, the day the report was released, the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security issued an unusual joint warning. That evening, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Feinstein, “Was it worth it to release this report today if, in fact, American lives, whether diplomats, military personnel, civilians, are going to be in danger?” Feinstein responded that there is “no perfect time to release this report,” and added, “I think you’ve done a good job, certainly, of hyping the warnings.” But Blitzer persevered, wondering if she would feel guilty if Americans were killed. “I couldn’t believe that,” Feinstein told me. “He asked me three times!”
Newspaper stories picked out startling details from the report, and the Times editorial board called for the prosecution of the “torturers and their bosses,” starting with former Vice-President Dick Cheney. But on the Sunday-morning television shows the C.I.A.’s defenders outnumbered its critics. “Several of us made a concerted decision that, if and when this came out, we weren’t going to take it,” John Rizzo, the agency’s former general counsel, who is named many times in the report, said. Planning for the counter-offensive had begun in the spring of 2014. McDonough insisted that former C.I.A. officials be allowed to read the report; Feinstein acquiesced. Thus, they had time to prepare their rebuttal and create a Web site, C.I.A. Saved Lives, before the release of the report. When Hayden read the report, he was furious about how he had been treated. Feinstein also singled him out in a floor speech the day the report was released, saying, of his initial briefing, in September, 2006, “He referred specifically to a ‘tummy slap,’ among other techniques, and presented the entire set of techniques as minimally harmful and applied in a highly clinical and professional manner. They were not.” Hayden and Rizzo became the point men on TV.
The former C.I.A. officials attacked the report as partisan. Feinstein had repeatedly tried to persuade the Republicans on the committee to rejoin the investigation, but they refused, and wrote a response to the report that was strikingly similar to the C.I.A.’s. (They also attacked the Senate staff for having taken the Panetta documents from the C.I.A. facility.) The former officials disputed the report’s evidence that the enhanced techniques had been ineffective. And they denounced the committee for conducting no interviews, relying instead on contemporaneous C.I.A. e-mails, documents, and internal interviews and investigations. The Justice Department had started an investigation of the detention program in August, 2009, and Panetta said that he would therefore not require C.I.A. personnel to speak to the committee. But Rizzo, who retired in 2009, said now that he would have been happy to talk. “I pounded that drum about the interviews every chance I got,” he told me.
The day after the report was released, McCain spoke at a Human Rights First dinner that honored him and Feinstein. “It’s been a tough day for Dianne—they rolled out the big guns,” he said. “I’m proud of her resilience.” General David Petraeus, the C.I.A. director who resigned in 2012, after an F.B.I. investigation discovered he was having an extramarital affair with his biographer, said in a video presentation that when he was military commander, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, “my view was that, if you want to get information from a detainee, the best way to do it is become his or her best friend.” He went on to say that Feinstein’s “leadership on this issue has been very important. She has of course spearheaded the entire effort to go back and look at what the practices were, to get these out into the open, to insure that we have learned everything that we can.”
Brennan responded to the report in a press conference at C.I.A. headquarters, in Langley—the first such conference to be televised live. Like Hayden and Rizzo, he criticized the report as “partisan” and “flawed.” He denied that the C.I.A. had misled the White House and Congress, arguing that detainees subjected to the enhanced techniques had provided valuable information, and that it was “unknowable” whether they would have done so under other circumstances. Most important, he refused to characterize the procedures as torture, or to say that they should not be used again. “I defer to the policymakers in future times,” he said. President Obama gave no speech of his own about the report, letting Brennan speak for the Administration.
On July 31st, the C.I.A. inspector general, David Buckley, released a summary of findings in the internal investigation he had started in January. He concluded that agency employees had acted improperly in accessing the computers and the e-mail of the committee staff, and that the crimes report that the C.I.A. had filed with the Justice Department was based on erroneous information.
Brennan, four months after his firm denials at the Council on Foreign Relations, apologized to Feinstein and Chambliss. He also said that he was appointing an accountability board, headed by the retired Democratic senator Evan Bayh, to review the situation. Feinstein pointed out that the report “confirmed what I said on the Senate floor in March,” but she also spoke of “positive first steps.”
Some of her colleagues weren’t ready to abandon the fight. Senator Carl Levin demanded that Brennan explain his earlier denial, and Udall and Heinrich called for his resignation. Even Chambliss found the situation “very, very serious.” During a White House news conference the next day, Obama made his most forthright acknowledgment yet of the substance of the report: “When we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe and I think any fair-minded person would believe were torture, we crossed a line.” But he emphasized his “full confidence” in Brennan: “Keep in mind—John Brennan called for that I.G. report.”
When Obama came into office, he wanted to heal the breach between Congress and the C.I.A. that had developed during the Bush Administration. Yet the agency’s relationship with Congress had grown only more fraught. Senator Harry Reid had stopped taking his intelligence briefings from Brennan. As Majority Leader, Reid regularly got calls from the White House asking him to assume onerous legislative tasks; now he made a preëmptive move. “He called Denis McDonough and said, ‘I told Brennan back in January what he should do!’ ” the senior Senate staffer recalled. “ ‘Don’t call me on this—I’m not defending him. I’m not going to undermine Dianne Feinstein. You have done nothing but obstruct this report.’ ” When Reid had a similar conversation with the President, the staffer said, “the President tried to justify what the C.I.A. had done, saying the staff had gotten the Panetta review, and the C.I.A. had no choice.”
Brennan’s predicament was resolved six months later. In mid-January, 2015, the accountability board dismissed Buckley’s conclusion that the officers who searched the Senate computers had acted improperly. On the contrary, the board said, there was no “common understanding” between the committee and the agency about access to the Senate staff’s computers—only an “informal” one. And the board concluded that concerns about the Panetta review justified the search. It confirmed that Brennan had conveyed “explicit instructions” on three occasions to find out whether Senate staff members had accessed the Panetta review. But, it continued, “a misunderstanding between the D/CIA and [redacted] arose because the former did not appreciate what forensic techniques were necessary to answer his questions and the latter did not understand the D/CIA’s expectations that no intrusive methods be employed.”
John Rizzo told me that this accountability board was different from any he had seen during three decades at the agency. Boards were often formed to follow up on an inspector general’s report and recommend disciplinary action for those who had acted improperly. Here the board discredited the inspector general. “I was surprised they came out as hard as they did on Buckley,” Rizzo said. (In January, Buckley left the agency.) “It was a surprise to me, too, that they didn’t mete out discipline. I thought it was a given, especially considering that Brennan went and apologized to Feinstein.” Why did he think no one was disciplined? Rizzo laughed. “From reading the board’s report, it appears that John Brennan himself was the one. He said, basically, pull out all the stops. So how do you hold subordinates liable for something like that?”
On the day the board issued its findings, shortly after the Republicans took control of the Senate, the new chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard Burr, wrote to Obama, asking that all copies of the complete torture report that Feinstein had sent to the White House and other parts of the executive branch, including the Departments of State, Justice, and Defense, be returned. (Burr was apparently concerned that the report would become publicly available under the Freedom of Information Act.) Feinstein, now the vice-chair, wrote to Obama, strongly opposing the request. Several weeks later, the Administration pledged that it would not destroy or return copies without permission from the courts. Regarding Burr’s letter, the former C.I.A. officer said, “That is thinking like the agency does! If there is a report that was mistaken or flawed, you pull it out from the computers completely.” Burr said that he also intended to give the Panetta-review documents, still in the committee safe, back to the C.I.A. When I asked Feinstein about Burr’s attempt to claw back the report, she said, “I was surprised, and somewhat suspicious about who put him up to it.”
Brennan had prevailed, in a way that had seemed highly unlikely six months earlier. “John was able to wend his way through a minefield,” his old friend Grenier said. Brennan’s relations with Democrats on the Intelligence Committee remain hostile. In May, Wyden, Heinrich, and Senator Mazie Hirono sent Brennan a letter, demanding he acknowledge that the computer search was improper and affirm that it would not happen again. His statements after the report’s release continue to resonate. “It surprised me that he wouldn’t use the word ‘torture,’ ” the former intelligence officer said. “I know he needs to defend the agency to have credibility there—but he has exceeded that.” In the years since 9/11, the former officer continued, “the C.I.A. has done remarkable things and reprehensible things. I think the way the agency went on the offensive after 9/11 surprised Al Qaeda, and ninety per cent of what it did was right on track. But what was done with those two psychologists and the interrogations—the agency lost its sense of where the edge was, and went over it. The report really is important. In the future, if the C.I.A. faces a situation where it comes to the edge, hopefully it will know to go back—and understand that it cannot do anything.”
As for Feinstein, the officer continued, “She was a serious overseer, knowledgeable, interested in the work. She was really hard-nosed on targeted killings—and someone who was a quasi liberal from California. She was such an important asset, for the C.I.A.” Listening to Feinstein’s speech last March, he said, “I thought, for the agency to lose that is horrifying.”
One day in early March, I met with Feinstein and several staff members in her office in the Hart Building. A large, vividly detailed painting of landscapes in Nepal, which she and Blum had visited on one of their early trips, hung behind her desk. When I told Feinstein what the former intelligence officer had said about her, she smiled and said, “That’s nice to know. See, you don’t hear this. That’s for sure.” She continued, “It’s a lonely place. And it’s a lonely place for my staff, because they get beaten up.” It appears that Burr and other Republicans may still try to punish the staff for taking the Panetta documents back to the Hart Building, even as Feinstein has said that removing the documents was justified by the committee’s oversight responsibility. Alissa Starzak, who worked on the report before leaving the committee, in 2011, was nominated last July to be general counsel of the U.S. Army. Her confirmation was slowed by Republicans angry about her role in the report; Burr has said that he is striving to keep her from getting confirmed. Feinstein and Chambliss, who has retired, worked well together. No one would say that about Feinstein and Burr. “Some people around here look at oversight as being the best buddy, and always supporting them, no matter what,” Feinstein said. “That isn’t oversight. Oversight can’t just be going to a hearing and listening to what somebody says, when you don’t know whether they’re telling you the truth or not.” After all, she noted, “part of the C.I.A. tradecraft is deception.”
It was almost a year since Feinstein had given her speech on the Senate floor. I asked why Brennan chose the course he did. “It’s the protection of the brotherhood, at the C.I.A.—you protect me and I protect you,” Feinstein said. “And Brennan wanted to destroy the report. In my view, the beauty and the strength of this country—what makes it so different—is that we admit our mistakes and we go on. And it’s tough.”
Some have hoped that Feinstein’s experience with the torture report might lead her to view intelligence agencies more skeptically. There is little sign of that. In a recent speech, she reflected on her tenure as chairman of the Intelligence Committee and said that she would change only one thing: “I would hold more open hearings.” She is as confident as ever about the ethics of the targeted-killings program. “This is good oversight,” she told me. “The staff team has made fifty-nine visits to see the real-time operations of the Predator, the intelligence, the training. We stay on top of it. And the collateral damage—it’s classified, believe it or not, but the numbers are very good.” (After the recent announcement that two hostages were killed in a drone strike in Pakistan, Feinstein renewed her call for a public annual report on the number of combatant and civilian deaths from these strikes.) And she remains a champion of the N.S.A. and its call-records program, still objecting even to the term “surveillance.” Two independent panels concluded that the program has never been crucial in any terrorism-related investigation. But Feinstein continues to justify it, referring to the case of Najibullah Zazi, who pleaded guilty to plotting suicide-bombing attacks in the New York City subways in 2009. “What is that worth, saving subway cars stuffed to the gunwales with people?” she demanded.
With the torture report, Feinstein abandoned her long-standing allies in the intelligence community. She defended her work by emphasizing its thoroughness; she has noted, with pride, that the Senate historian told her it was the longest report a committee had ever produced. When she was attacked, she said, repeatedly, “Read the report!” That was her hashtag as she took to Twitter to fact-check Brennan, during his televised press conference. Now she told me, “We sent out this big report to those departments that should care. But I am disappointed, because I suspect that not very many people have looked at it.” The public seemed uninterested, too. A poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News after the report’s release found that fifty-nine per cent of Americans supported the C.I.A.’s use of the coercive methods—slightly more than before. Elisa Massimino, the chief executive of Human Rights First, faulted the President for the fact: “Obama hasn’t provided the leadership we would expect from somebody who set this out as a priority issue. I think his job is to lead the country to a stronger consensus that we don’t want to do this again, and he failed at that.”
After the report was released, Feinstein sent Obama a letter with her recommendations. Probably the most important was passing legislation to close the loopholes that had made torture possible, and to build on the executive order that Obama issued in January, 2009. (Without legislation, another President could reverse that order.) In this year’s State of the Union address, Obama said, “There’s one last pillar of our leadership, and that’s the example of our values. As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened, which is why I have prohibited torture.” But the President has given no sign that he has any interest in Feinstein’s recommendations, even as she and McCain recently introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would permanently ban the enhanced techniques. I asked her whether she was disappointed in Obama’s lack of support for the torture report. She paused, and replied, “Well, let me say that there are people who don’t want to look at the whole truth. And I don’t know whether the President read our report or not. I certainly haven’t heard from him since.”
Source: New Yorker