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The CIA's monitoring of Senate computers is totally outrageous
It's also a threat to our democracy
 
Not so secure.
Not so secure. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

McClatchy DC is out with an alarming story about a bitter fight between the Senate and the CIA over a big report being prepared by the Intelligence Committee on the Bush-era terrorist interrogation program, which by any objective measure involved the systematic use of torture. The CIA is fighting ferociously to prevent the release of the report, and according to McClatchy the spy agency has taken to monitoring the computers of Senate aides who are writing it up.

The report appears to confirm ominously oblique comments about CIA interference that have been made by Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). And it represents an outrageous abuse of power by the CIA, which apparently thinks it can intimidate lawmakers from conducting their oversight responsibilities.

Here's what's happening:

The criminal referral may be related to what several knowledgeable people said was CIA monitoring of computers used by Senate aides to prepare the study. The monitoring may have violated an agreement between the committee and the agency.

The development marks an unprecedented breakdown in relations between the CIA and its congressional overseers amid an extraordinary closed-door battle over the 6,300-page report on the agency's use of waterboarding and harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists held in secret overseas prisons. The report is said to be a searing indictment of the program. The CIA has disputed some of the reports findings...

[Udall], who has led calls for the CIA to allow the release of the report, also appeared to be referring to the monitoring in a letter he sent Tuesday to President Barack Obama. "As you are aware, the CIA has recently taken unprecedented action against the committee in relation to the internal CIA review and I find these actions to be incredibly troubling for the committee's oversight responsibilities and for our democracy," Udall wrote.

Now, we don't know what the CIA is looking at. It could merely be the contents of the report (which would be bad enough), or it could be the personal information of Senate staffers, leaving them vulnerable to blackmail. Think I'm exaggerating? It was only a short while ago that J. Edgar Hoover kept personal files on members of Congress — something which was widely known and a key to his power.

But this budding controversy points to a much greater problem, which stems from the fact that the political class has grown used to excusing the behavior of spy agencies in the name of security.

Once the security apparatus has convinced itself that it is operating in the interests of the nation, it can justify just about anything. Did the previous presidential administration carry out war crimes? Well, the CIA can say, releasing a detailed report about that very issue will endanger national security, because it will make it harder for the good guys to do their job of taking on the bad guys. Monitoring the computers of Senate aides is part of that effort. It's for the greater good. Do we want to risk a terrorist attack? We're talking about life and death!

Of course, these people are also protecting their institution, their jobs, and possibly themselves from prosecution under the Geneva Conventions.

In the end, by the security state's logic, pretty soon anyone who believes in the rule of law will become a threat to the nation. It goes without saying that this is seriously perilous for our democracy, if we are to have a democracy in any meaningful sense of the word. No legislature effectively captured by the security apparatus is actually democratic.

Now, of course such a situation is not close to obtaining in the United States — as evidenced by my freedom to write and publish such arguments. But that's all the more reason to check the security apparatus now, before it gets any worse. Many people seem to have a vague sense that such a thing can't happen here, because the American democratic heritage is too strong. On the contrary, I say the reason previous generations' (goofy and incompetent) illegal surveillance programs didn't metastasize into tyranny was vigorous pushback and oversight from the legislature and the rest of society.

Ignoring blatant violations of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments — as our government is doing — is not only enormously risky on its face, but also underestimates the ruthlessness of the extant security apparatus. Just check out the voluptuously detailed fantasies of officials who wouldn't think twice about murdering Edward Snowden in cold blood. Do they sound like people who take the due process or the rule of law very seriously?

 
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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