Torturing the torture study

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein “reluctantly” accused the CIA on Tuesday of spying on her committee. The CIA should be very afraid. DiFi has stood out as Langley’s fiercest Democratic defender. Now she threatens to become the agency’s biggest nightmare.

Edward Snowden accused Feinstein of hypocrisy for protesting when spooks spy on Congress but not protesting when people spy on regular folk. Others hailed her for courageously standing up to CIA thuggery. Me? I cannot fathom why the CIA would pick this fight, although that doesn’t mean Feinstein’s wrong.

How did this convoluted story begin? As every newspaper reader older than 25 knows, the CIA used what it called “enhanced interrogation techniques” on terrorist detainees after 9/11. According to CIA documents — those we know about, anyway — officials waterboarded three high-level detainees and then stopped the practice in 2003. The press reported on the methods in 2005.

After The New York Times reported that the CIA destroyed videotapes of waterboarding in 2007, Feinstein said then-CIA Director Michael Hayden assured the committee that written documents filled in all the blanks. Then-Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller sent staffers to review the documents. Thus, the CIA ran the clock until 2009, when Barack Obama became president and Feinstein became chairwoman.

In March 2009, the committee voted to conduct a comprehensive review of Bush interrogation and detention policies and asked the CIA for all relevant documents. This is one of those “be careful what you ask for” moments. As Feinstein noted Tuesday, there followed a classic “document dump.” Under then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, the CIA delivered 6.2 million pages of documents — so many that only the CIA could process the data.

In 2010, committee staff first noticed that some documents had disappeared. DiFi protested. A CIA liaison apologized. The same year, staffers somehow found draft versions of the “internal Panetta review,” which, according to Feinstein, included “analysis and acknowledgment of significant CIA wrongdoing.” Feinstein doesn’t know whether the Panetta docs got into the committee computer “intentionally by the CIA, unintentionally by the CIA or intentionally by a whistle-blower.”

In December 2012, three years and $40 million after launch, Democrats on the committee approved a 6,300-page study that remains classified but, according to Feinstein, found that no valuable information whatsoever was obtained by waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques.

Really, 6,300 pages? I suggest editing. Also, that conclusion defies common sense. It also doesn’t square with an admission from former acting CIA Director Michael Morell that some intelligence that led to the death of Osama bin Laden “came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques.”

The new rub is a doozy: On Jan. 15, CIA Director John Brennan informed Feinstein and ranking Republican Saxby Chambliss that the CIA had searched the committee computer to trail the Panetta docs and referred the possible leak to the Department of Justice. To Feinstein, that reeks of intimidation. She vowed not to back down.

Brennan denies any wrongdoing. He’s ready to move on to more important espionage.

So kudos to DiFi for standing up to the CIA. But remember what the cause is — to re-litigate Bush policies that have been the target of Democratic denunciation for years and the subject of many revealing investigations.

Meanwhile, I think the Obama administration has its own more pressing problems to cover up.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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