Warning of a "crisis in public confidence," former staffers for an influential 1975 Senate committee that investigated CIA abuses asked Congress and President Barack Obama on Monday to form a new panel to probe missteps by the nation's intelligence agencies.
F.A.O. Schwarz Jr., former chief counsel for the Church Commission that led to the creation of today's Senate and House intelligence oversight committees, joined more than a dozen former congressional aides in sending a letter Monday to Congress, Obama and the American public. He urged Congress to appoint a special panel to examine the secretive operations of the CIA and the National Security Agency and their impact on Americans' civil liberties. He questioned the effectiveness of recent intelligence reviews by the Obama administration and the Senate.
"The need for another thorough, independent and public congressional investigation of intelligence activity practices that affect the rights of Americans is apparent," Schwarz said. He added: "Misleading statements by agency officials to Congress, the courts and the public have undermined public trust in the intelligence community and in the capacity for the branches of government to provide meaningful oversight."
The letter comes almost a week after a rift between the head of the Senate intelligence committee and CIA officials over competing accusations of illegal conduct became public. Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Ca., accused the CIA of intimidation and breaching its constitutional authority after the agency's director and top lawyer filed a criminal complaint with the Justice Department about the mishandling of classified documents by Senate staffers.
The standoff is at its core a battle over who owns the official history of one of the darkest eras in American spying — the waterboarding and brutal interrogations of al-Qaida prisoners in undeclared, "black site" prisons abroad. It has bared long-standing institutional failures and simmering tensions between the executive branch and Congress.
Schwarz and his former colleagues said the furor echoes the crisis atmosphere of the early 1970s, when allegations of CIA domestic spying and assassination attempts abroad prodded Sen. Frank Church to mount a special Congressional probe. Congress responded to Church's critical report by tightening oversight of the intelligence agencies.
Intelligence veterans, legislators and historians see key problems in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks: Congress' hesitance to hold the intelligence community and Bush administration accountable; the CIA's over-reaction and failure to navigate rising doubts in Congress; and tensions between Senate investigators and CIA briefers.
"Sad to say, this is bad for all concerned," said former CIA Director Michael Hayden. He contended with fallout from the waterboarding of detainees and the CIA's subsequent destruction of videotapes showing interrogators pouring water over the face of the suspected terror leaders to create the sensation of drowning.
Feinstein's dispute was sparked by infighting between Senate investigators and the CIA over a committee report on harsh interrogations. The report, which is still classified, concludes the CIA's use of coercive questioning was torture and produced little useful intelligence. The CIA argues the methods yielded important intelligence leads.
Senate aides reviewing classified computer files overseen by the agency have accused the CIA of monitoring their searches and withdrawing hundreds of internal documents without explanation. CIA officials blamed the aides for improperly accessing and mishandling classified files.
Both sides claimed laws were broken. CIA Director John Brennan warned Feinstein in a January letter of a security breach caused by the aides; Feinstein accused the CIA last week of "a potential effort to intimidate this staff." The White House acknowledged administration lawyers were warned by Brennan about his plans to file the complaint, but Obama did not publicly intervene.
Some historians say the rift is a product of Congress' own failure after 9/11 to confront the Bush administration and CIA over how they conducted the "war on terror."
"There's no question Congress was willing to allow the intelligence agencies to do whatever they saw fit without raising hard questions," said David M. Barrett, a Villanova University historian.
Jane Harman, formerly the House intelligence committee's top Democrat and one of the first in Congress to disapprove of the CIA interrogations, blamed the Bush administration's use of executive authority to cut Congress out of the loop during the early 2000s. Harman, now president of the Wilson Center, a Washington think-tank, said only when Bush acknowledged the use of waterboarding in September 2006, "Congress began to push back."
Tensions smoldered at times between the intelligence committee and CIA during secret briefings about waterboarding and the black site prisons. A former Senate aide said the CIA blocked a proposal for congressional staffers to visit and inspect several prison sites overseas. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the briefings are still classified.
"The concern at the agency is that real-world sources and operations could be exposed," said Charles Faddis, who led the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center between 2006 and 2008 and now heads Orion Strategic Services, a national security consulting firm.
To many inside the CIA, the growing pressure in recent months appeared to be a deliberate attempt to blame the agency for carrying out Bush administration decisions.
"The whole chapter with regard to questioning and black sites has been inherently adversarial," Hayden said.
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