Following last week’s dramatic Senate speech by Intelligence Committee head Dianne Feinstein denouncing the CIA for essentially spying on her oversight committee, today Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid released his own statements, one to John Brennan, Director of the CIA, the other to Eric Holder, the Attorney General, regarding the CIA’s misbehavior. It’s quite a fracas: the Director of the CIA and the Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Senate Majority Leader suddenly throwing punches at each other! All the fascinated onlookers shouting, “Fight!  Fight!” An elbow, a knee, a bloody lip, a closed eye … is this thing going to get out of hand?

Two wrestlers climb atop a cage, one about to punch the other

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill

Probably not.

When you’re watching a fight, it’s as important to consider what’s not happening as what is. Yes, the combatants are throwing wild punches, and cursing at each other, and rolling all over the floor scratching and biting … but is anyone trying to gouge out an eye? Has anyone picked up a weapon? Are the fighters trying to wound … or to kill?

In this regard, it’s worth asking why Senator Feinstein, whose oversight committee has reviewed a reported six million documents and produced a 6,300 page report, insists on referring merely to a CIA “interrogation” program rather than to a “torture” program.  Why she doesn’t declassify the report — as she claims she wants — simply by introducing it into Senate proceedings pursuant to the Constitution’s Speech or Debate clause.  Why she would claim ”the CIA’s search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance [and] may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution”… and then ask for nothing more than “an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate” (and note that an apology is all Feinstein ever seems to want:  ”On May 17, 2010, the CIA’s then-director of congressional affairs apologized on behalf of the CIA for removing the documents. And that, as far as I was concerned, put the incident aside”).

That last item is particularly telling. All these grave charges, and all Feinstein is demanding is an apology? Does this sound like mortal combat? Or more like “Admit you crossed a line and back off, and we’ll be cool again?”?

And have a look at those Harry Reid missives, as well. His language couldn’t be more restrained. Like Feinstein, he’s careful never to say a word as problematic as “torture.” And nowhere does he demand a criminal investigation, instead merely asking for Holder’s “support” and noting “I trust you will carefully examine these concerns.” The only investigation that seems to really interest him is the very limited one he’s called for and can manage himself — that the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms conduct a forensic examination of the Senate computers the CIA seems to have searched and stay the hell away from the Senate’s staff (by the way, is it maybe time to update the Senate?  Do they really still need a sergeant-at-arms?  Everyone else seems to get along okay without one). Despite the presence of a bit of angry rhetoric (“Unprecedented!  Independence!  Separation of Powers!”), I think Reid’s letters can fairly be characterized as an attempt to contain the conflict rather than to escalate it.  He virtually acknowledges as much:  “The Senate has an interest in bringing final resolution to this dispute.” I don’t read that as “Heads will roll!” It feels more like, “We need to make this go away.”

“All right, Barry, I get it,” you might say. “They’re all fighting pursuant to some sort of agreed-upon rules. But why are they fighting at all? And since they are fighting, why aren’t they going all out?”

Two reasons:

1.  Brennan, Feinstein, and Reid, like almost anyone who has risen to the upper echelons of an oligarchy, are rapaciously power-hungry.  They’re constantly looking for ways to increase their own power at the expense of someone else’s (it’s also possible, and I would say likely, that they personally loathe each other, although this isn’t necessary for a fight — power hunger is sufficient), and this means that people like Brennan, Feinstein, and Reid are continually testing, trying, probing, and will get away with as much as they can until another player begins to push back.

2.  Brennan, Feinstein, and Reid are part of the same system, and that system has rules for fighting, along with potentially severe penalties for infractions. Violate the rules, and the system upon which your power, perks, position, and profits fundamentally depends will turn against you.

The easiest way to understand the dynamic I’m talking about is to watch a few episodes of The Sopranos. Yes, various members of the different mafia factions hate each other. And yes, they’re constantly looking for ways of muscling in on the other factions’ operations, siphoning off the other factions’ profits, denying the other factions opportunities. They might even try, as in the final season, to wipe out another faction entirely. But there are still rules. For example, no matter what the opportunity, no matter what the outrage, you can’t go after a person’s family. If you do, you’ll lose allies who can’t countenance such a thing. Those allies might even turn against you entirely.

Remember Tom Hagen explaining to Michael early on in The Godfather why they couldn’t kill McClusky, the police captain? “Nobody has ever gunned down a New York police captain before. It would be disastrous. All the other five families would turn against you. The Corleone Family would be outcast. Even the old man’s political protection would run for cover.”

To put it another way: asocial violence occurs between individuals. It rarely occurs within systems. And Brennan, Feinstein, and Reid, whatever personal loathing they might feel for each other and whatever personal prerogatives they might feel are at stake in this fight, are acutely aware that their power is far more dependent on their continued good standing within the system than it is on the outcome of any given fight. So yes, they’ll fight, but primarily to scare the other side into backing off, and always within implicitly understood rules. And those rules, apparently, include not calling torture torture, not declassifying a torture report via the Speech or Debate clause, and, most of all, not calling for an actual investigation for acts of grave criminality, but calling for an apology and a final resolution, instead.

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible the fight could spin out of control and turn into something more like combat. After all, Michael Corleone did kill that police captain — but only because the survival of his own family was threatened and because he saw no other way. But the Corleones did indeed pay a huge price, with the other four families turning against them and Michael’s own brother slain. Violating the rules of the system that’s the foundation of your own power is an extremely risky thing to do.

I don’t see any sign that Brennan, Feinstein, or Reid has lost perspective or control.  I don’t see any sign that this fight involves any of their fundamental positions within the oligarchy.  Absent either or both such developments, I’m confident the fight will be ended amicably, possibly with the assistance of some of the other oligarchs who also have a stake in the fight not getting out of hand (think of a Sopranos “sit-down”).

Let’s hope I’m wrong. It would be deeply beneficial to the country and indeed the world if a few of America’s oligarchs became so enraged at each other that they lost their perspective and started tearing into each other in ways that would expose and undermine the insidious system that sustains them. But more likely they’ll be reminded of how much they and their peers profit from the system, and back off before they do anything to damage it.

Photo by Mike Kalasnik released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.