CIA Director John Brennan with President Obama in 2013.
Photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, courtesy Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Flickr
To be in the spy business, you need to know how to deceive. To stay in the spy business, however, you need to know whom to deceive.
Lesson 1: Don’t deceive your boss. Lesson 2: Don’t deceive the people who give your boss the money that pays for your spying.
You might think the CIA has been in the spy business long enough to have learned these lessons, but apparently not. Last week, an internal investigation made clear that agency officers broke into a computer network the Senate Intelligence Committee was using to prepare its own report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.
News that our government’s spies chose to spy on our government is bad enough, but the CIA’s report flatly contradicted claims that CIA Director John Brennan made in March.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, had accused the agency of trying to intimidate committee members and staff who were looking into the detention and interrogation program. In response, Brennan categorically denied that the agency had attempted to spy on the Intelligence Committee’s investigation. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. Brennan also suggested critics await the conclusions of agency reviews, adding, “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.” While the Senate committee’s report has not yet been released, it turned out there was no need to wait that long.
Brennan apologized to lawmakers last week and announced the creation of an internal personnel board to review CIA employee conduct. However, he has not resigned, nor does he plan to, according to CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani. The personnel board, headed by former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, will recommend disciplinary measures for the staff members directly involved.
The evidence, however, is clear: Either Brennan did not know that his own agency had illegally spied on Senate staffers, or he did know and simply lied in an attempt to intimidate the Senate.
Whether he was deceptive or ignorant, he should already be filling out his claim for unemployment benefits. Several members of Congress have explicitly called for his resignation, including Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, and Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the CIA’s actions “appalling,” The New York Times reported. Other legislators called for a fuller investigation and harsh disciplinary action.
In contrast, the White House continued to defend Brennan. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, responded to questions as to whether the investigation created a credibility problem for Brennan by replying “Not at all.” Earnest went on to observe the Brennan’s job is very difficult. On Friday, the president himself said he had “full confidence” in Brennan.
Back in March, Brennan said one thing that seems to have been true: “If I did something wrong, I will go to the president and I will explain to him exactly what I did, and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.”
The fact that Brennan does not seem to have been asked to go illustrates the extent to which the Obama administration has been cowed and co-opted by the intelligence community it ostensibly runs.
This is the same CIA that has, as far as we know, failed to anticipate every one of the burgeoning crises enveloping the president in his second term, from Benghazi to Syria to Crimea to Ukraine. Maybe if the agency spent more time examining the state of the world and less time investigating the people who are investigating its own past conduct, it would yield better results.
Earlier in July, the Justice Department announced that it had found insufficient evidence to proceed with criminal probes into alleged wrongdoing in which CIA staffers blocked access to documents and monitored staff computers used in the Senate’s investigation. (It also declined to investigate the CIA’s countercharges that Senate staffers obtained unauthorized access to classified documents.) This decision now seems especially ill-timed.
We can only speculate why the president is so utterly ineffective in confronting the spooks. Maybe he just does not care what they do. Maybe his disinterest rises to the level that, as he often claims, he actually doesn’t know. Maybe the agencies are in possession of information he would rather not see mysteriously leaked. Maybe, as in so many other aspects of his approach to government, he believes the law is whatever he interprets it to be today, subject to however he may change his interpretation tomorrow.
The bottom line is that Barack Obama presides over one of the most expansive surveillance states ever created - one that increasingly shows itself to be unconcerned with following the law. He presides over it, but by choice or otherwise, he isn’t running it. It’s going to be up to Congress to teach the spooks a lesson.