Yet in another respect, this may very well be a smoking gun in the now substantial case against President Barack Obama that alleges that much of his official behavior has manifested lawlessness and incompetence. It is hard to believe that the president did not know about this but not hard to believe he would look the other way.
About four months ago, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, went to the Senate floor and accused the CIA of committing torture during the presidency of George W. Bush and of spying on the committee that she chairs as it was examining records of that torture. Brennan responded by denying both charges and leveling his own -- that investigators for the Senate Intelligence Committee had exceeded their lawful access to CIA records and that that constituted spying on the CIA.
Brennan even got his predecessor, George Tenet, under whose watch Feinstein claimed the torture had occurred and the attacks of 9/11 took place, to deny vehemently that his agents had committed torture. With this mutual finger-pointing, both the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee reported each other to the Department of Justice, which promptly punted.
How did all this come about? Under federal law, the CIA gets to do what the president permits and authorizes only when it reports its deeds and misdeeds truthfully to two congressional committees, one of which is the Senate Intelligence Committee. (The other is the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.) None of this is constitutional, of course, seeing as the CIA fights secret wars; the Constitution mandates that only Congress can declare war, and Congress cannot delegate its constitutional authority to committees. This system of secret government is so secret that 90 percent of our elected congressional representatives are kept ignorant of it.
But last week, on a sleepy Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer, Obama admitted that the CIA had tortured people, and shortly thereafter, Brennan admitted that the CIA had spied on the Senate. Then the president said he still has confidence in Brennan.