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It shouldn’t be too surprising to hear that the CIA may have spied on the work of Senate Intelligence Committee staffers. Hardball is an old game in the nation’s capital, as old as our government itself. The leaks, the vicious rumors, the struggle to shift blame onto others was ubiquitous during the days of George Washington’s presidency, when the president was pained and mystified by the infighting that went on among even the most distinguished and talented members of his presidency, including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
Indeed, even as the CIA was coming into being in 1947, its staffers spied on one of the congressional committees that was handling the legislation that would transform what was then the Central Intelligence Group into the CIA. Walter Pforzheimer, the legislative liaison for CIG (who would hold the same job at CIA for nine year years) used the services of a bartender to eavesdrop on two men who would testify against creating a powerful CIA. Then, much more seriously, Pforzheimer persuaded the son of the congressional committee chairman to “borrow” (from a locked committee safe) a transcript of a hearing from which CIA advocates had been excluded, in order to learn details of that hearing.
Fifty years later, when I interviewed the charming Pforzheimer, who was very helpful to my research, he laughed with gusto over his success in learning what the congressional committee was up to and sharing that information with CIG bosses. Though I lacked the gumption to say so, I couldn’t help but think Pforzheimer and the colleagues with whom he shared his copy of the transcript had set an unfortunate precedent of spying on Congress.
They didn’t get caught though. Jump ahead into the 21st century and we have the spectacle of the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the director of the CIA publicly trading charges about the agency having allegedly spied on Senate committee staffers who worked at a secure facility to examine documents relating to the Bush-era detention and interrogation program carried out by the CIA after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
There are many ways to make sense of this conflict. From a historical perspective, as noted above, it can be tempting to say, “These things happen. It’s Washington, D.C. Struggles for power are never ending.”
But this is not 1947, the “spying” (if that is what actually occurred, something more-or-less denied by CIA head John O. Brennan) has not remained secret, and Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is enraged. The dispute, now visible to the world, is no mere clash of egos or personalities. If, as seems apparent, CIA personnel took information from computers that were for the exclusive use of Senate staffers, we have a conflict that raises grave constitutional issues.