For months now, the United States government has been embroiled in a slow-burning constitutional crisis. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) has been working for years on a supposedly scathing report about the CIA's torture program during the Bush era. Tension between the two came to a head in a speech on the floor of the Senate back in March, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee chair, accused the CIA of illegally spying on her staff's computers, and then referring the staff members to the Department of Justice in an attempt to intimidate them.
It looked a lot like the CIA was attempting to sandbag the investigation, delay the report, and discredit its findings. Torture is a war crime, and even spies get prosecuted sometimes.
It also looked like the CIA was winning this fight. But now it has suffered a pretty bad setback. The CIA inspector general has produced a report concluding that Feinstein was correct:
Findings of the investigation by the CIA Inspector General’s Office "include a judgment that some CIA employees acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding reached between SSCI...and the CIA in 2009," CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said in a statement.
The statement represented an admission to charges by the panel’s chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), that the CIA intruded into the computers her staff used to compile the soon-to-be released report on the agency’s use of harsh interrogation methods on suspected terrorists in secret overseas prisons during the Bush administration. [McClatchyDC]
Let's be clear: This wasn't just a violation of some gentlemen's agreement. It is illegal for the CIA to spy on American citizens, and it is really illegal for it to spy on its congressional overseers. It's an egregious violation both of the principles of democratic oversight and the separation of powers.
It also blatantly contradicts CIA Director John Brennan's previous statements. Asked if the agency was spying on the Senate, he flatly denied it. "Nothing could be further from the truth...that's just beyond the scope of reason," he said.
Brennan was either lying or completely uninformed about what was happening in his agency. Given the previous behavior of intelligence officials, I suspect the former.
Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), also members of SSCI, are furious. In a statement saying the spying raised "grave questions about the constitutional separation of powers," Udall said his confidence in Brennan had been "shattered," while Wyden demanded a public apology and a full accounting of what had happened. A few hours later, Udall called for Brennan's resignation.
Strong words. But are they backed up by anything more than that? Brennan has now straight-up admitted to a fundamentally outrageous crime. He's either a liar or an atrocious manager. At a minimum, Udall is right: Brennan should resign, along with whoever else is implicated in this fiasco. I'd go further and prosecute them — heck, I'd scrap the whole agency and start over.
But I rather doubt any of that will happen. Feinstein herself has been notably quiet. Former CIA Director George Tenet, who was in charge of the agency during the period in question, has been mobilizing a counterattack against the report, possibly because he is going to be portrayed very badly. And, in general, it's almost impossible to overstate how hapless Congress is these days.
I sure hope I'm wrong, but I suspect a grudging apology is all American democracy is going to get.