Government bureaucracies, like many private sector businesses, are initially created in response to a perceived need either to do something or provide a service. The Department of Defense in its current incarnation rose out of the developing Cold War in the post-Second World War environment, while the CIA was created to prevent a second Pearl Harbor. But as bureaucracies mature they become less and less connected to their founding principles as circumstances change and they fail to adapt. They then go into a self-defense mode that makes maintaining jobs, budgets, and political turf in Washington their top priority. This compulsion to protect equities is the reason we are currently hearing of alleged CIA spying on a largely disengaged Senate committee in an attempt to forestall any accountability for torture and rendition policies that many believe to be war crimes.
Mostly lost in translation is the fact that the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, like CIA, is also a stale bureaucracy, one largely inhabited by senators who have been in place for many years. Committee staffers reflect their sense of entitlement, believing themselves untouchable as they bask in their celebrity since 9/11. In short, they too are prone to go into self-defense mode about what they have and have not done, making Sen. Dianne Feinstein no hero for opportunistically attacking the CIA for spying on her committee. Her attempts to shift the blame for now-discredited and abhorrent activities in which her committee was almost certainly complicit are obvious, though this in no way exonerates the Agency.
Edward Snowden, addressing the controversy from Moscow, noted correctly that the Senate committee is hypocritical in that it and Feinstein have never objected to mass spying and other indignities inflicted on ordinary American citizens as byproducts of the “global war on terror.” Feinstein’s concern only becomes acute when she and her colleagues are themselves being scrutinized. As Ron Paul explained, Feinstein “doesn’t care about our privacy, but, lo and behold, she does care about her own.”
The long-serving senator from California indeed has a solid record of doing absolutely nothing about torture, secret prisons, rendition, clandestine as well as open wars, domestic spying, and targeted killing drone attacks carried out by the United States government’s intelligence community, which she claims to oversee on behalf of the senior branch of the legislature. Her committee has perhaps attempted to redeem itself with its exhaustive 6,300 page report on torture, which the CIA is blocking as part of the saga on who was spying on whom, but the horse has long since escaped from the stable. The torture took place ten years ago, and no one has been punished for it. The claim that the Agency lied to Congress about the program is almost irrelevant, as Congress probably preferred it that way and would not have done anything about it in any event.
So this is the story insofar as it is possible to piece it together up to this point: to prepare its report on CIA torture the Senate committee staff insisted on having full access to every document at Langley relating to the practice without any monitoring or redaction by the Agency. It would have been both impractical and insecure to send all that material over to the Hill, so the Agency set up in northern Virginia a privately controlled secure facility with its own computers that could access the relevant documents prescreened by Agency contractors by using a special search tool, a process that theoretically limited what documents could be viewed to only those relevant to the inquiry.
After that it becomes murky. CIA, which was preparing its own rebuttal demonstrating that the “enhanced interrogation” was both effective and legal, claimed that the Senate staffers were able to somehow obtain access to a withheld CIA Inspector General’s “draft” report that had actually been critical of the program. This discovery led to an investigation into what was being viewed. The recent preemptive filing of a complaint to the Justice Department by the CIA General Counsel possibly sought to dispel any allegations that the Agency had been monitoring the staffers while also suggesting that the aides had in fact been spying on CIA by borrowing the draft report and taking it back to Capitol Hill with them.
The Senate committee reacted angrily, claiming that all documents it accessed were found using the CIA-provided search mechanism, and that it was the Agency which was, in fact, spying on the staffers when they were doing the research for the report. CIA had agreed not to monitor the activity of the aides when it set up the secure facility, but it may have violated that understanding either by actually accessing what was being done on the computers, or, quite possibly, noting and analyzing the types of documents that were being viewed and the length of time they were being used, relatively easy to do through the security forensic system now in place when highly classified information is pulled up. That would reveal what the staffers were focusing on. The CIA contractors who were running the show apparently also unilaterally pulled a number of documents that they had previously made available to the staffers.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has now also joined the fray, lining up to defend Feinstein and ordering an investigation. Other side issues that have surfaced include allegations that President Barack Obama was aware of and authorized both the redaction of documents from the Agency computers as well as the CIA spying on the committee (bear in mind that the Agency works for the president, not for Congress); that CIA Director John Brennan approved the operation and therefore should be fired; and that Republicans appear to be backing the CIA to beat the Obama administration over the head with yet another White House mishandling of a crisis relating to the intelligence community. There is also the perhaps more important issue of constitutional separation of powers, cited by Reid, with Congressional oversight of the intelligence community being challenged by one of the agencies being overseen. One must bear in mind that there were no apparent disagreements on policy; the torture issue is old news and bipartisan.
In reality, what we are seeing is two powerful vested interests in the United States government going at each other in an attempt to establish credibility and score points. They are both seeking to control the narrative that will emerge from the CIA detention and interrogation program. The Agency would like to claim that it cleared everything with the oversight committees and that the program was both legal and effective. The Senate committee prefers to demonstrate that the now-embarrassing program was ineffective and plausibly illegal because the Agency did not fully brief the committee. One suspects that the senators are conveniently suffering from amnesia when they currently claim that they were not fully informed. As often happens, back in 2003 they might have collectively decided that it was best not to know all the messy details. They are almost certainly correct in claiming that the program was completely ineffective, however, so there is considerable mud to be flung on both sides.
Curiously, neither side in the argument is even suggesting that the Justice Department lawyers, CIA senior managers, and White House officials that authorized the torture should be held accountable in any way. Also lost in the shuffle are the interests of the American people. I am sure most Americans agree that the proper role for an intelligence agency is to identify and respond to genuine threats in a measured fashion that is both appropriate to the level of the danger and, within reasonable limits, ethical. Secret prisons and torture chambers are the hallmarks of a police state, not a constitutional republic. Most Americans would probably also agree that intelligence activities should be overseen by elected officials who believe in the same thing—and that magnifying threats to make an argument for reducing constitutional liberties and committing crimes against humanity is not appropriate for any government agency.
Unfortunately, both the CIA and the Congress have failed in their primary missions and are together the source of the morass that the rest of the nation is currently struggling through. That a finger-pointing debate over the effectiveness and legality of a torture regime that prevailed many years ago is only now taking place is indicative of the ineptitude and callousness of every part of the government that was involved in the whisking away of suspects to “black sites” where they could be subject to “enhanced interrogation.”
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.