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March 16, 2014

CIA-Senate dispute balancing act

WASHINGTON — The public spat between President Barack Obama’s trusted CIA ally and a loyal senator has sharpened the focus on his complicated role in managing the terrorism-fighting programs he inherited.

Obama wants to stay neutral in the feud between Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and CIA Director John Brennan, Obama’s former top counterterrorism adviser.

Feinstein this past week accused the CIA of illegally searching computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which she heads, to study documents related to the harsh interrogation techniques the CIA employed after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Obama said taking sides was “not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point.”

Staying out of the fray may prove difficult, given Obama’s involvement in the issue at the core of the dispute: What kind of public reckoning should there be for those who carried out waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods?

Even as Obama stated his neutrality in the Feinstein-Brennan dispute, he sent his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and top lawyer, Kathryn Ruemmler, to meet with California senator.

The president has said he wants the report from Feinstein’s committee on the CIA program to be made public. The committee only undertook the review after Obama banned the interrogation techniques when he took office. His opposition to them was a centerpiece of his first presidential campaign, helping him build support among Democrats and independents.

“There’s no reason for him to in any way hide the truth of what happened,” said Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council spokesman.

Carrying out that pledge has proved complicated, marred by friction between Senate Democrats and the CIA, where many officials involved in the harsh interrogation program still work. One is Brennan, a senior agency official during the Bush administration.

Feinstein, in an extraordinary Senate speech last week, accused the CIA of illegally spying on her committee’s work.

Brennan responded by saying Senate investigators may have “improperly obtained and/or retained” sensitive CIA documents, in violation of the ground rules for how the classified materials would be handled. The agency’s acting general counsel asked the Justice Department to look into whether Senate staffers committed a crime.

The White House says the CIA notified the president’s lawyer that it was filing a complaint with the Justice Department. The White House did not weigh in with any judgment on that step, officials said.

“With respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA, John Brennan has referred them to the appropriate authorities and they are looking into it,” Obama said.

Obama’s remarks were intended to illustrate his neutrality on the matter.

But Michael Hayden, a CIA director under President George W. Bush, said they were interpreted by intelligence agencies as “tacit acceptance from the White House” of the CIA’s move against Senate investigators.

“The president owes certain people freedom of action, particularly when they’re defending their agency,” Hayden said.

The CIA says it disputes significant parts of Feinstein’s 6,300-page report, which remains secret.

While Obama has said he wants to declassify parts of the report, people close to the administration say the White House is weighing the impact on current CIA officials who were involved in the harsh interrogations, as well as the possibility that new details about the program could inflame anti-American sentiment in the Arab world and in Afghanistan.

The interrogations program was one of several initiatives Obama inherited from Bush that he pledged to change or end.

Despite Obama’s repeated pledges to shut down the prison for suspected terrorists at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the facility remains open. The president has run into intractable opposition from Republicans who don’t want to transfer detainees to prisons in the U.S., severely limiting the administration’s options.

As a candidate, Obama also was critical of the domestic surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency. But after becoming president, Obama kept most of the programs in place, adding what officials said was a more robust system of checks and balances.

Those steps did little to quell the controversy when NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden released a trove of documents last year revealing the vast reach of the government’s surveillance programs.

Only after those revelations did Obama begin a review of the operations, which has resulted in some modest changes while continuing to keep the core structure of the programs in place.

In an ironic twist, Feinstein has been perhaps Obama’s staunchest Democratic ally in backing the surveillance programs.

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