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Obama has chosen his side in the war Congress is waging on the errant CIA

For nearly five years now, the US Senate has been trying to establish what the agency was guilty of in the years after 9/11

It’s a witch’s brew in Washington and the stench is vile. Concocted in the name of fighting terrorism, its ingredients range from torture to domestic spying and, finally, to cover-ups. Add ladles of lies for flavour.

We weren’t meant to be here. Remember when President Barack Obama took office? He would clean up and run an open, decent administration. Yet, Guantanamo Bay still has guests, the NSA has spied on Angela Merkel and the CIA still has never been forced to come clean about renditions of detainees to secret “black site” prisons overseas under George W. Bush’s tenure and its use of torture to extricate intelligence.

Fortunately, we have Congress, which, amongst other things, is responsible for keeping the other half of government honest. When it smells a rat, it holds hearings and writes reports so wrongdoers can be punished and lessons learned. Sure, the system can be abused but when the stakes are serious it generally works so  long as the other sides plays ball. If it doesn’t, you’re in trouble. And Mr  Obama’s team isn’t playing ball.

For nearly five years now, the US Senate has been trying to establish once and for all what the CIA was guilty of in the years after 9/11. That its interrogators engaged in torture is hardly in doubt, notably ‘waterboarding’ that mimics the sense of drowning. President Bush sanctioned these techniques in 2002 but only told the rest of America about them in 2006, just hours after the Senate Intelligence Committee received a first CIA briefing on them. That briefing, it later learned, was full of lies and obfuscations.

It was because of those lies – and videotapes – that the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, decided in 2009 that an enquiry into what really happened was essential. There were once 92 tapes bearing raw footage from inside some of the interrogation cells. But in 2005 a CIA employee named Jose Rodriguez destroyed them. Presumably he thought it better if they were gone.

Until this week, we had limited information on the progress of the probe. Her researchers had been given a dedicated and segregated computer network onto which the agency had loaded documents pertinent to their investigation.

They completed a draft 6,300-page  report only to have the CIA barrel in and complain it reached unfair conclusions – that torture had occurred and very little, if any, useful intelligence had come of it. Some revising was reluctantly done and her committee is close to voting finally to approve it.

There were also hints that relations between the CIA and Ms Feinstein were testy. To what degree, we only found out when she exploded on the Senate floor on Tuesday, accusing the agency of having hacked into her staff’s computers, first in 2010 when some of the documents it had given up were removed without the committee’s knowledge, and again this January apparently because the agency believed her researchers had illegally accessed an internal CIA review of its interrogation practices it didn’t want them to see.

More startling than her outburst was the push-back by John Brennan, the CIA director, appointed by Mr Obama, who is on the record of having defended torture back in the Bush years.

He near as damn-it called Ms Feinstein a liar. “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,” he said.

His agency, though, stands accused of malfeasance at multiple levels – violating the Fourth Amendment, which bans unreasonable searches and calls for judicial warrants, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and the standing ban on it ever conducting domestic surveillance.

It was a Republican on her committee, Senator Graham Lindsey, who said that if what she said was true, Congress should “declare war” on the agency. She additionally voiced outrage that the acting top lawyer at the CIA had earlier this year asked the Justice Department to investigate whether her staff had broken the law by accessing the disputed internal review. That, she said, was a blatant attempt at intimidation.

She also noted that the individual in question was once chief lawyer to the CIA’s interrogations division and is “mentioned by name more than 1,600 times in our study”. She didn’t name him, but he is Robert Eatinger.

The document the CIA is so worked up about is an executive summary, which Leon Panetta asked for when he was CIA director, of everything that was originally surrendered to the investigation. It is called the “Panetta Review”. Ms Feinstein says it corroborates all the conclusions of her researchers, which the CIA then tried to object to. How her staff got hold of it isn’t exactly clear, but that in the end doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the CIA, just like the NSA, seems unable to come clean about what it has wrought.

Senator Feinstein says this is a “defining moment” in determining whether Congress can properly oversee the executive branch of the US government or not. If it can’t, the system is broken and dangerous. She is also correctly urging President Obama to order the release of her full report quickly “to ensure that an un-American, brutal programme of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted”.

And what has the White House’s response on Tuesday? It has full faith in Mr Brennan.