Since Edward Snowden exposed the vast over-reach of the National Security Agency’s data collection activities, few US politicians have demonstrated much concern. Snowden has been consistently labelled a traitor, while the actions of the US’s security agencies have generally been deemed to be necessary for the safety of the US. President Obama has engaged in semantics regarding how oversight should be increased, but the consensus view seemed to have been, “If we drag our heels on this long enough, the media and public will lose interest and go away”. It’s “un-American” to question the spooks, it seems.
That looks about to change. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has pressed the nuclear button by alleging that the CIA spied on and covertly removed hundreds of pages of documents from the Committee’s computers. If Feinstein’s allegations are correct, that’s a likely violation of the laws preventing the CIA from conducting domestic surveillance. The Committee was investigating allegations regarding the CIA’s post-9/11 secret overseas prisons and the coercive interrogation techniques (okay, torture) that occurred in those prisons.
The Senate Intelligence Committee provides oversight of all sixteen of America’s spy agencies. For Feinstein, the head of that Committee, to allege that the CIA was conducting surveillance of the oversight committee while it was being investigated, is beyond explosive.
After all, it’s not as if Senator Feinstein has been anything other than a devout defender of the US’s intelligence agencies. She’s publicly defended the CIA’s use of armed drones in Pakistan and Yemen, and the NSA’s mass collection of phone data in the USA. In the Wall Street Journal, for instance, she wrote in October last year that:
“Since it was exposed in June by leaker Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency’s call-records program has become controversial and many have questioned whether its benefits are worth the costs. My answer: The program – which collects phone numbers and the duration and times of calls, but not the content of any conversations, names or locations – is necessary and must be preserved if we are to prevent terrorist attacks.”
Senator Feinstein’s decision to take on the CIA in such a public way suggests that the Security Intelligence Committee has declared war on the agency. And the Senator would surely not have put herself on the line so publicly if she did not believe that there was sufficient evidence to back up her allegations.
The balance may now be shifting in the battle between personal privacy and perceived public safety in America.