Obama comments on Senate-CIA dispute, fails to mention Feinstein

Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama, John BrennanBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Yesterday in a radio interview I opined that I would not be surprised if the White House stepped in to mediate the ongoing dispute between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Today, President Barack Obama broke his silence “with respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA”, as he said. But he refused to take sides —or did he? On Wednesday afternoon, the President responded to a question on the matter by a White House pool correspondent. The question related to the increasingly heated public spat between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee. The latter is tasked, along with its sister body in the House of Representatives, with exercising legislative oversight of the Intelligence Community. Many members of the Committee, which is currently investigating the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation against terrorism detainees, believe that, not only was the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation methods illegal, but that it also failed to generate useful intelligence. The CIA, however, denies this, and has been quite possessive of documents relating to the issue, which the Committee believes has a right to access. The Agency has now asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to look into whether Congressional staffers illegally removed classified documents from the CIA’s archives that were beyond the scope of the Committee’s investigation. The Committee has in turn asked the Bureau to investigate whether the CIA illegally searched the computers used by staffers to carry out their research into CIA files.

In responding to the reporter’s question, President Obama repeated his “absolute commitment” to make the Committee’s report public once completed, adding that the White House supports the Congressional investigation into enhanced interrogation practices during the administration of President George W. Bush. The President also commented briefly “with respect to the issues” between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee, saying: “that’s not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point”. Barack Obama continued saying that, in his opinion, CIA Director John Brennan had “referred [the matter] to the appropriate authorities”.

That may sound like a neutral statement. Some observers, however, including The Nation’s George Zornick, noted that the President only mentioned the action by Brennan, who took the matter to the FBI, without referring to Senate Intelligence Committee chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who also raised the alarm about alleged spying by the CIA against Congressional staffers. Does this imply, as Zornick suggests, “an implicit rebuke” of the Committee’s charges? Is President Obama wading into the debate by excluding Senator Feinstein? It is difficult to say, though it is perhaps worth noting that the Congressional Intelligence Committees have been among the most recalcitrant legislative critics of the President’s executive power throughout his tenure. Regular readers of this blog may remember that, in March of 2010, the White House threatened to veto the 2010 Intelligence Authorization Bill, which would have forced the administration to widen the circle of lawmakers informed about sensitive intelligence activities. In June of that year, Senator Feinstein publicly declared that she would refuse to hold confirmation hearings for James Clapper —President Obama’s nominee to head the Office of the Director of National Intelligence— until the Intelligence Authorization Bill was passed.

In his statement yesterday, Obama said he would not “wade into [the dispute] at this point”. Many observers believe that, based on his prior positions in intelligence matters, if the President does interfere, he will probably be siding with Langley.

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