A major conflict over access to secret documents has erupted between the CIA and members of the Senate Intelligence Committee which, in theory, oversees it. The battle makes “House of Cards” look like a kindergarten squabble.
The issue is torture: the CIA wants to suppress the history of its involvement in illegal interrogations during the Bush administration, and has hit out at the Intelligence Committee, which is investigating this history, by monitoring the computers used by its staff. The dispute has escalated to the point where the constitutional separation of powers, congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies, and the independence of Congress appear to be in question.
By seeking to control this narrative, the CIA is not only defending its turf, but also its legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Extreme interrogation techniques like waterboarding, ended by Obama when he took office, have been marketed by politicians, the media, and Hollywood as essential to the defense of the nation. To justify past and future illegal actions by the agency, they require Americans to buy into this account.
The CIA’s role is also supported by the ideological conflation of US geopolitical interests with the defense of democracy around the world, which binds together the security agencies with Congress and the administration. There are certainly those on legislative committees willing to excuse anything the intelligence community does. An admission that the agency went beyond the bounds of international and constitutional law and functioned no differently from the dictatorships it is supposed to guard against would seriously undermine its domestic image.
The Intelligence Committee spent several years working on a 6,000-page report, still classified, about the CIA’s detention and interrogation program after 9/11. The New York Times says the committee’s study appears to be “a withering indictment of the program and details many instances when C.I.A. officials misled Congress, the White House and the public about the value of the agency’s brutal interrogation methods, including waterboarding.”
According to McClatchy: “The report details how the CIA misled the Bush administration and Congress about the use of interrogation techniques that many experts consider torture, according to public statements by committee members. It also shows, members have said, how the techniques didn’t provide the intelligence that led the CIA to the hideout in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was killed in a 2011 raid by Navy SEALs.”
CIA director John Brennan responded in June last year by challenging the principal conclusion of the investigation– that “enhanced interrogation” had resulted in little valuable intelligence. Then, in December, Sen. Mark Udall revealed he was aware of an internal CIA review highly critical of the interrogation program that contradicted Brennan’s rebuttal, but that had not been handed over to the senate committee.
The CIA angrily reacted to Udall’s claim as a major breach of security, the New York Times says, and agency officials “began scouring the digital logs of the computer network used by the Senate staff members to try to learn how and where they got the report. Their search not only raised constitutional questions about the propriety of an intelligence agency investigating its congressional overseers, but has also resulted in two parallel inquiries by the Justice Department – one into the C.I.A. and one into the committee.”
Apparently what happened was that some months after Brennan made his official statement, while working in a CIA database senate aides discovered the draft of an internal review of interrogation materials ordered by former CIA Director Leon Panetta that confirmed the senate committee’s conclusions. The aides simply “printed the material, walked out of the CIA facility with it and took it to Capitol Hill,” according to McClatchy. The CIA then confronted the committee with the security breach, leading staff members to conclude that the agency were recording their use of computers in the CIA’s high-security research room.
On Tuesday last week, Sen. Mark Udall sent a letter to Obama that implied the president had known the CIA was interfering with their investigation but had not acted to stop it. He wrote: “As you are aware, the CIA has recently taken unprecedented action against the Committee in relation to the internal CIA review.” He called the action “incredibly troubling” and stated it jeopardized the constitutional separation of powers.
Brennan denied everything, calling Udall’s accusations “spurious” and “wholly unsupported by the facts,” and lashed out by suggesting the senate committee itself was guilty of wrongdoing.
TV journalist Rachel Maddow called it “death of the Republic stuff.” “The whole separation of powers thing almost pales in comparison to the seriousness of the allegation that a nation’s own spy services have been turned against its own government. Particularly, where that government is supposed to be overseeing the spy services.”
Following closely from Edward Snowden’s revelations of how the NSA evaded congressional oversight, this new scandal can only intensify the determination of elected representatives to assert control of the rogue agencies. “The CIA tried to intimidate the Intelligence Committee, plain and simple,” Udall told reporters Wednesday, according to Roll Call. “I’m going to keep fighting like hell to ensure that the CIA never dodges congressional oversight again.”
The scandal also spotlights Obama’s reluctance to prosecute CIA torturers and to keep top Bush administration officials in place, despite their clear rejection by the American public in 2008 and 2012.