Chris Donesa on the SSCI/CIA Dispute

Chris Donesa, former chief counsel to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, provides this thoughtful and balanced analysis at Lawfare of Senator Feinstein’s charges against the CIA, raising three questions about the dispute.

Of particular interest is Donesa’s third question, which relates to why SSCI itself apparently violated its agreement with the CIA by removing certain documents, including drafts of the “Internal Panetta Review,” from the CIA facility without getting pre-clearance to do so. I agree with Donesa that Feinstein clearly, though implicitly, acknowledged such a violation. She claimed in her statement that the removal of the documents was lawful and in keeping with the “spirit” of the agreement (because the committee redacted the information that it believed the CIA would legitimately be able to protect). The corollary is that SSCI violated the letter of the agreement, and I doubt that the CIA would agree that SSCI complied with the agreement’s spirit either.

I would note here that Feinstein doesn’t say whether she authorized the committee staff to remove the documents. But she is clearly saying that the staff acted properly because “there was a need to preserve and protect the Internal Panetta Review in the committee’s own space.” If they had not done so, she suggests, the CIA might have removed the committee’s ability to access the documents at the CIA facility. Moreover, the CIA might have destroyed the documents altogether.

Donesa finds the last suggestion, in particular, rather implausible under the circumstances, and this would be my first reaction as well. But the most important point is that Senator Feinstein is accusing the CIA of being such a rogue agency that it cannot be trusted to avoid even the reckless and unlawful step of destroying evidence specifically known to and demanded by its oversight committee.

So the question I would raise is whether Feinstein’s charge should be viewed as merely the sort of hyperbole we have come to expect in the back and forth of Washington bickering, or whether it should be taken seriously. And if the latter, what is the proper mechanism for adjudicating such an extraordinary charge?