Steve Chapman

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a stalwart ally of the nation's intelligence agencies, says she is appalled to learn they have been spying on her committee, ignoring federal law and possibly trampling on the Constitution in a heavy-handed targeting of innocent people. Hey! Maybe now she knows how the rest of us feel.

Getting Feinstein to denounce the CIA is like trying to get Texas Republicans to disown Ted Nugent. As head of the Intelligence Committee, the California Democrat normally defends the spymasters no matter what. But even the longest rope is finite in length, and Feinstein has hit the end of hers.

That's the good news. The bad news is that, as with everything connected to intelligence and national security, it probably doesn't matter. Charges will fly, revelations will emerge, people will be outraged, and things will go on as they did before.

Feinstein's shock stems from her assumption that elected officials exercise the ultimate authority over what our intelligence agencies may do. But that's an illusion, as Tufts University international law professor Michael Glennon writes in the Harvard National Security Journal.

"Judicial review is negligible; congressional oversight is dysfunctional; and presidential control is nominal," he argues. We have, he says, a "double government" -- the public one that citizens naively believe is in charge, and the hidden one that almost always prevails on anything it cares about.

Bradford Berenson, a lawyer in George W. Bush's White House, put it more delicately: "The dirty little secret here is that the United States government has enduring institutional interests that carry over from administration to administration and almost always dictate the position the government takes."

Barack Obama's presidency will be remembered for confirming this view beyond doubt. He ran on the promise of new protections for privacy, new limits on government snooping and new transparency about the government's activities. But he has governed as a champion of secrecy and untrammeled government power.

Obama continued the secret mass surveillance of Americans' phone records begun under Bush, sat mute as his national intelligence director misled Congress about the program and declined to punish anyone for the use of torture.

He signed a bill authorizing indefinite imprisonment of Americans without charges or trial. He refused to publish the legal rationale for using a drone missile to vaporize a U.S. citizen in Yemen.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

©Creators Syndicate