- - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ask CIA Director John O. Brennan “Who watches the watchers?” and his answer will be “Nobody.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Tuesday applied a hot hand to the seat of the spy agency’s pants after catching it snooping on the Senate.

From her post as Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Mrs. Feinstein, California Democrat, has been one of the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for domestic surveillance, endorsing unprecedented intrusions into the privacy of millions of Americans.

Now that the tables are turned, and Mrs. Feinstein is the target of the snoopers, she declares a constitutional crisis. We’re glad that she’s finally awake and has joined the skeptics at the right conclusion.

When the Senate committee opened its investigation into the interrogation memos in 2009, the CIA agreed to create a secure electronic reading room that would enable congressional staff to review 6.2 million pages of documents about the program.

After spending months poring over the material, the congressional aides noticed that once they were read, the documents tended to vanish.

After first blaming this on a “computer glitch,” the CIA reluctantly conceded it had deleted 930 documents from its system. “This was the exact sort of CIA interference in our investigation that we sought to avoid at the outset,” said Mrs. Feinstein.

Sometime in 2010, the Senate committee found a draft copy of the “Panetta Review,” an internal summary of the detention and interrogation techniques. It contained, Mrs. Feinstein says, an “analysis and acknowledgment of significant CIA wrongdoing.”

Not wanting to see this valuable document vanish, the staffers took it back to the Senate. This wasn’t like Sandy Berger’s stuffing documents embarrassing to Bill Clinton down the front of his trousers and sneaking them out of the National Archives. The Senate committee had full legal authority and clearances needed to seize the copies of the Panetta Review.

The CIA got very cross with the senators because the conclusions in the Panetta Review didn’t match what the agency had said in public testimony. Mrs. Feinstein in turn was very cross with the CIA. “How can the CIA’s official response to our study stand factually in conflict with its own internal review?” she demanded of Mr. Brennan.

He then told the committee chairman and the senior Republican that the CIA accessed Senate computers “to learn more about activities of the committee’s oversight staff.” The top CIA lawyer, who was involved in the waterboarding program, asked the Justice Department to file charges against the Senate staffers.

The search was performed without a warrant, in clear violation of the congressional authority to investigate the executive branch. The very first congressional investigation of the executive was set up in 1792 to look into the loss of nearly 1,000 American soldiers at the Battle of Wabash River in the Indian wars.

James Madison argued eloquently and successfully against an attempt to allow the executive branch to investigate itself. “The House ought to deliberate well,” he said, “before they requested the president to do a thing which he had it not in his power to do.”

With its domestic snooping enterprise, the intelligence agency has been doing what it “has not in its constitutional power to do.” Now that she has seen the scope and pattern of misfeasance, cover-up and intimidation, perhaps the senator better understands the dangers of unchecked executive authority.

We welcome her to the ranks of those of us resisting the intrusions into the privacy of all the law-abiding, and not just senators, noble and august as they may be.