Category Archives: CIA

Salon misses the point: Feinstein’s speech on the CIA is a big deal

The crisis in relations between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee has blown up with Sen. Diane Feinstein’s speech in the Senate last week, accusing the CIA of breaking the law and the constitution. The clash has put an unwelcome spotlight on the role of the White House, where Obama is refusing to intervene while still backing CIA director John Brennan.

Feinstein, chair of the Committee and until now the security agencies’ staunchest defender, has concluded the CIA is bent on intimidating the committee and is determined to evade Congressional oversight. The antagonism has been building for some years while the senate committee compiled a report on the CIA’s use of torture under the Bush administration.

She confirmed publicly that the CIA had been monitoring computers used by senate staff, and that documents detailing evidence of torture had been removed from the network. The Guardian reported: “In her speech, Feinstein described repeated attempts by the CIA to frustrate the work of Senate investigators, including providing the committee staff with a ‘document dump’ of millions of non-indexed pages, requiring years of work to sort through – a necessity, Feinstein said, after former senior CIA official Jose Rodriguez destroyed nearly 100 videotapes showing brutal interrogations of detainees in CIA custody.”

Without naming him, Feinstein said CIA acting general counsel Robert Eatinger had been closely involved in the torture program. Eatinger had reported her staff’s removal of a CIA document from a classified facility to the Justice Department, a move she called an intimidation tactic, but late last week the senate struck back by removing him as general counsel and confirming his replacement.

The CIA has always carried out dirty tricks abroad, but is constitutionally prevented from spying within the US. Its operatives have always acted under the assumption there would be no consequences for illegal actions, while Americans have been led to believe that their undercover operations were necessary for defense against the country’s enemies. The security agencies were emboldened by Bush after the 9/11 attack – the impact of which is now wearing off – to abandon international and constitutional legalities.

Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who publicly criticized the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, told Amy Goodman: “People always say, ‘After 9/11, everything changed.’ Well, it did change. The president, on the evening of 9/11, said, ‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say. We’re going to kick some ass.’ … Well, they took some prisoners in Afghanistan, and the first person tortured was John Walker Lindh, an American citizen.”

The legislature is finally responding to five years of obstruction from the agency over reporting the extent of torture it carried out because the spying has been turned on them, after senate aides discovered internal memos contradicting Brennan’s official rebuttal of the Intelligence Committee’s findings. However, the committee’s demand that the senate report be published represents a threat to the CIA’ s ideological justification for its activities.

Is the clash mere “hypocrisy, posturing, face-saving and obfuscation,” as Natasha Lennard claims in Salon? Or is Washington Post correspondent Eugene Robinson closer to the mark when he says: “This is not just a bunch of rhetoric. It’s a very big deal.”

Whatever Feinstein’s motives – and we can agree with Edward Snowden when he calls her hypocritical – by campaigning to make public the activities of the security agencies, other members of the senate committee like Mark Udall and Ron Wyden are challenging authoritarians within those agencies who want to override popular sovereignty.

Robinson notes the expansion of the security state: “Look at how the CIA’s role has expanded to include what most of us would consider military operations, including flying and firing armed drones. Look at the breathtaking revelations about the NSA’s collection of phone-call data. Look at how the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, in a series of secret rulings, has stretched the Fourth Amendment and the Patriot Act beyond all recognition.”

The paralysis of Congress by the Republicans has created a political space for the extension of executive power and security agencies to assert their will against the legislative bodies charged with representing the people’s interests. However, Snowden’s revelations have changed the political context by alerting the public to the extent of state surveillance in the US and worldwide. Feinstein’s speech is significant not so much because of the constitutional principles involved but because, despite her previous support of the NSA, her accusations resonate with the public which has become aware of the fact that repression abroad will come home to be used against Americans.

Now the crisis has reached the White House. Although Obama is trying to stay aloof, senators on the Intelligence Committee are challenging him to defend legislative oversight and to declassify the committee’s report. His administration is also refusing to hand over documents in its possession which relate to the torture program.

Some of my readers have asked why I would make so much of this conflict. After all, the senate and the security agencies are all part of the same capitalist state, they say; differences between them are merely tactical, they agree on the fundamentals of capitalist rule.

But these conflicts are one form in which the class struggle is being fought out in America today, a struggle to defend popular sovereignty. Far from being autonomous, state bureaucracies reflect the tensions within society, refracted through the particular configuration of the US state. Increasingly, protest is uniting political demands with economic issues, since divisions within the political elite are preventing legislation that might ameliorate growing poverty.

Even “managed democracy” needs to maintain the illusion of reflecting the popular will.  While still dominated by the corporate elite, the state’s fragmentation is undermining its legitimacy in the eyes of Americans.


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Filed under CIA, Homeland Security, Mark Udall, Obama, political analysis, Republicans, US policy

To Save Its Skin, CIA Throws American Democracy Under the Bus

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.

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Filed under CIA, Edward Snowden, Mark Udall, National Security Agency, Obama, political analysis, US policy