A strange and convoluted fight between the Central Intelligence Agency and its ostensible overseers in Congress has reached a zenith of sorts. A report by the CIA’s inspector general has concluded that the agency’s employees had improperly spied on a computer network used by a Senate committee. That committee just so happened to be investigating the CIA.
On its face, this behavior looks constitutionally dubious. It also pretty clearly contradicts what CIA Director John Brennan asserted a few months back: “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.”
The only one proved wrong, in the end, was Brennan, who at this point may want to start polishing his resume for his post-government career. And the episode illuminates a deeper problem.
The Senate staffers in question were working on a still-classified 6,300-page report on the deeply controversial detention and interrogation methods — also known as torture — used by the CIA on terrorism suspects. According to media accounts, the report will document the agency’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” in grim detail, conclude that the program was largely ineffective, and assert that agency officials repeatedly misled Congress about it.
Unsurprisingly, the CIA has been hostile to this investigation from the start. It dragged its feet again and again. It divulged documents — millions of them — in an almost comically inconvenient format. It required that Senate staffers view the material only at a CIA facility in Northern Virginia, and only after a team of contractors vetted each page. Documents, in a few instances, mysteriously disappeared.
And for months now, CIA officials past and present have been trying to pre-emptively discredit the report’s conclusions.
Which brings us to the proximate cause of this latest dispute. It turns out that the CIA had conducted a frank internal review of the interrogation program. The Senate staffers got ahold of this review — exactly how is still unclear — which infuriated the spies. That led to the CIA snooping on the committee’s computers and monitoring some of its emails. Crucially, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the intelligence committee, the internal review flatly contradicts what CIA officials have been saying in public about the program.
If the agency broke into its overseers’ computers to hide this review, it is deeply disturbing, to say the least. It’s also of a piece with the arrogant and anarchic way the CIA has often conducted itself over the past decade.
That’s one reason — among many — that it’s so important for the interrogation report to see the light of day. It will signal, as nothing else yet has, that the days of blank checks, generous deference and expansive legal latitude are coming to an end for the CIA.
That’s no bad thing. It suggests that, some 13 years after Sept. 11, the country is starting to get back to normal. And that Congress is starting to remember who’s in charge of whom.