Gregory D. Johnsen writes: Shortly before 9 a.m. on March 11, 2014, Dianne Feinstein, the 80-year-old chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, walked into the Senate chamber with a thick stack of papers and a glass of water. The Senate had just finished a rare all-night session a few minutes earlier, and only a handful of staffers were left in the room. Feinstein had given thousands of speeches over her career, but none quite like this.
“Let me say up front that I come to the Senate floor reluctantly,” she said, as she poked at the corners of her notes. The last two months had been an exhausting mix of meetings and legal wrangling, all in an attempt to avoid this exact moment. But none of it had worked. And now Feinstein was ready to go public and tell the country what she knew: The CIA had broken the law and violated the Constitution. It had spied on the Senate.
“This is a defining moment for the oversight of our intelligence community,” Feinstein said nearly 40 minutes later, as she drew to a close. This will show whether the Senate “can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.”
Two hours later and a few miles away at a Council on Foreign Relations event near downtown Washington, the CIA responded. “As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into Senate computers,” CIA Director John Brennan told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, shaking his head and rolling his eyes to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the charges, “nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that.”
Brennan was 58, but that morning he looked much older. He’d hobbled into the room on a cane following yet another hip fracture, and after some brief remarks he eased himself into a chair with obvious discomfort. Two years earlier in a commencement address at Fordham University, his alma mater, Brennan had rattled off a litany of injuries and ailments: In addition to his hip problems, he’d also had major knee, back, and shoulder surgeries as well as “a bout of cancer.” Years of desk work had resulted in extra weight and the sort of bureaucrat’s body that caused his suits to slope down and out toward his belt. “I referred the matter myself to the CIA inspector general to make sure that he was able to look honestly and objectively at what the CIA did there,” Brennan said. “And, you know, when the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”
Mitchell, who had already asked him two questions about the allegations, pressed again. “If it is proved that the CIA did do this, would you feel that you had to step down?”
Brennan chuckled and stuttered as he tried to form an answer. Two weeks earlier, he had told a dinner at the University of Oklahoma that “intelligence work had gotten in my blood.” The CIA wasn’t just what he did; it was his “identity.” He had worked too hard to become director to give up without a fight. “If I did something wrong,” Brennan eventually told Mitchell, “I will go to the president, and I will explain to him exactly what I did, and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.”
But Obama was never going to ask for his resignation. Not then, and not months later when the CIA inspector general’s report came back, showing that the agency had done what Feinstein claimed. Brennan was Obama’s man. His conscience on national security, and the CIA director he’d wanted from the very beginning. Not even a chorus of pleas from Democratic senators, members of Obama’s own party, made any difference. John Brennan would stay, the untouchable head of America’s most powerful intelligence agency. [Continue reading…]