John Brennan at the announcement of his nomination to lead the CIA in January, 2013. Photo via Flickr user Chuck Hagel
Along with the Iraq War, freedom fries, and Dick Cheney shooting a friend in the face, the George W. Bush administration was known for hyper-aggressive interrogation and detention policies carried out in the name of preventing terrorism. With the US Senate Intelligence Committee's report on post-9/11 excesses by the spy agency set to go public in a matter of weeks, CIA officials are now coming out of the woodwork to sell the masses on their honor and integrity.
But their PR offensive hit a stumbling block on Thursday, when an agency spokesman formally admitted for the first time that the CIA illegally accessed Senate investigators' computers.
An in-house inspector general found that "some CIA employees acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding reached between SSCI (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) and the CIA in 2009,” according to agency spokesman Dean Boyd. That's a passive-aggressive way of conceding that operatives were trying to keep their skeletons in the closet by monitoring what Congress was up to. CIA Director John Brennan apparently apologized to the two senior members of the Senate committee, one from each party, who had expressed displeasure that their staffers were spied on by an outfit that is not supposed to perform surveillance on the mainland United States.
"The agency was pretty good at avoiding domestic surveillance when I started there," said Marc Sageman, a former CIA operative who joined the agency in 1984 and later worked with the New York Police Department (NYPD) on counter-terrorism strategy. "That was really not us—that was the FBI."
Why would agents go rogue now? Probably because Bush-era policies like torture (including waterboarding) and extraordinary rendition (extralegally transferring alleged terrorists between countries, often stashing them at secret so-called black sites) look, to normal people at least, like shady behavior. And though we still don't have the report, which remains classified for the time being, it is rumored to find that all those extracurricular activities failed to prevent a single terrorist plot. Remarkably like the NYPD's Muslim surveillance program—which targets everyone who looks or sounds vaguely Islamic in the city and even New Jersey—the CIA violated civil liberties without actually making Americans any safer.
"After being briefed on the CIA Inspector General report today, I have no choice but to call for the resignation of CIA Director John Brennan," Colorado Senator Mark Udall said in a statement. "The CIA unconstitutionally spied on Congress by hacking into Senate Intelligence Committee computers. This grave misconduct not only is illegal, but it violates the US Constitution’s requirement of separation of powers."
So Brennan's future at the agency is looking murky—even as one of his predecessors, George Tenet, works furiously behind the scenes to shape how the public interprets the pending Senate report, as the New York Times reported earlier this week. Tenet isn't just trying to defend his integrity; there's also cash in the form of private-sector consulting fees to be had if he can resuscitate his reputation. There is technically a (slight) possibility of some kind of criminal prosecution as well, given that the report apparently accuses the CIA of misleading Congress and even the Bush White House about the effectiveness of torture. Then again, given that the Obama Justice Department has consistently shied away from going after anyone who did anything illegal before 2009, let's not get our hopes up.
"When I left, we pretended to be ethical," Sageman, who parted ways with the CIA in 1991 to practice medicine, told me. "I think that pretense just got dropped."
When US Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chair of the Intelligence committee, first went public with news of the CIA's snooping of her investigators' computers in March, Brennan issued a spirited denial that is not aging well.
"As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth," he said in an interview with NBC's Andrea Mitchell that same day. "I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s just beyond the—you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do."
Feinstein has yet to join Udall in calling on Brennan to resign, but suffice it to say he's on thin ice at this point. If and when the report emerges, the CIA may need to clean house in a major way.
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