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Caught between ally and advisor, Obama tries to sidestep CIA fight

March 13, 2014|By Kathleen Hennessey
  • President Obama talks about the dispute between Sen. Dianne Feinstein and CIA Director John Brennan.
President Obama talks about the dispute between Sen. Dianne Feinstein… (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated…)

WASHINGTON - A bitter public fight between Sen. Dianne Feinstein and CIA Director John Brennan has got President Obama caught between a powerful political ally and a trusted senior advisor - and on Wednesday he showed what an uncomfortable place that is.

In his first public remarks on the clash, Obama tried not to take sides in the dispute that has erupted over whether Senate staffers improperly removed a sensitive document from CIA files, as the CIA claims, or whether the CIA improperly searched computers that the Senate staffers had used to investigate the agency's now-defunct interrogation and detention program, as Feinstein insists.

Since the CIA has referred both its own role and that of the Senate investigators to the Justice Department for possible criminal investigation, Obama said, "That's not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point."

But even Obama's dodge demonstrated how hard maintaining neutrality will be.

Obama's remarks seemed to endorse the CIA's decision to refer the case to the Justice Department - a move that Feinstein, the California Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, denounced Tuesday on the Senate floor as a crude attempt to intimidate aides on her committee.

Even as Obama spoke, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill were discussing the possibility of appointing an independent investigator. The president made no reference to that option.

The White House has stressed that Obama has "great confidence" in Brennan, a former top Obama aide who took over the CIA a year ago.

And Obama tried to point to his own credibility on the underlying issue, noting that his administration shut down the George W. Bush-era "enhanced interrogation" program - which involved waterboarding sessions in secret CIA prisons - to end a painful chapter in U.S. history.

"The first day I came into office, I ended the practices that are subject to the investigation by the Senate committee, and have been very clear that I believed they were contrary to our values as a country," Obama said. "The one thing that I want to emphasize is that the substantive issue, which is how do we operate even when we are threatened, even when even gone through extraordinary trauma, has to be consistent with the rule of law and our values. And I acted on that on the first day, and that hasn't changed."

But the politician who campaigned as a chief critic of the CIA interrogation program has become, since entering the White House, the lead defender of the CIA's use of drones for targeted killings, and of the telephone and Internet surveillance systems exposed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

In some ways, the current dispute is an election-year reminder of the rift that has opened between Obama and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, and in his party's liberal base, when it comes to trust in America's spy agencies.

Though Obama repeated his support for eventually declassifying the Senate committee's report into the CIA's former detention and interrogation program, the White House has not endorsed releasing the draft documents at issue in the current tug-of-war.

"I would urge them to go ahead and complete the report and send it to us, and we will declassify those findings so that the American people can understand what happened in the past and that can help guide us as we move forward," Obama said.

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