Mark Twain once quipped, “If you don't like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” In Washington, D.C., the same thing can be said for the truth; in a flash, it will change -- usually with a forecast of sanctimonious apologies.
The latest example of this phenomenon occurred just last week, when the Central Intelligence Agency’s inspector general revealed that the agency had in fact illegally hacked into computers used by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI); the body designed – ironically -- to provide oversight of America’s intelligence agencies. True to Twain’s wry observation, it was only a few months back that such a claim was deemed “beyond the scope of reason” by none other than the CIA Director himself. John Brennan had huffed back then that, “Nothing [like that] could be further from the truth.”
One can reasonably assume Brennan had knowledge of his Agency’s cybercrime before piously denying any wrongdoing; after all, he is the director of the nation’s preeminent spy organization. In fact, this episode fits a well-established pattern by Intelligence Community officials of intentionally deceiving members of Congress, especially those tasked with overseeing their activities. Almost a year to the day earlier than Brennan’s denial, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper perjured himself in front of the House Judiciary Committee regarding illegal snooping by the National Security Agency; a “truth” for which he, too, later was forced to apologize.
For long-time watchdogs of the Intelligence Community, today’s culture of insulated arrogance and disdain for authority is disturbingly familiar. In the late 1970s, I served as Assistant Legislative Counsel at the CIA, and was involved in drafting legislation to provide oversight of our country’s Intelligence Community in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Until that time, there was no real oversight of these agencies; a situation that fostered a mentality similar to that found in closed societies in which intelligence agencies operate with impunity.
It now has been more than a generation since America has engaged in a real conversation about the oversight of our intelligence agencies. Clearly, whatever safeguards the SSCI and its House counterpart -- the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) – provided, are not working; at least not as intended.
Such is perhaps the inevitable evolution of the uncomfortable but essential need -- even in a constitutionally-based free society – for the government to maintain a strong foreign intelligence capability. Maintaining that delicate balance between gathering and utilizing foreign intelligence with the secrecy such operations require, while ensuring accountability and adherence to our constitutionally-guaranteed rights, has never been easy. And the need to regularly and openly reevaluate and reform those agencies, those powers, and those individuals, has never been greater.
Since 9/11, America’s intelligence agencies have become even more powerful and insulated; with secret budgets far in excess of those in place just a few years prior. Advancements in digital technology have made them frighteningly potent -- and creative -- in how they gather and use the unimaginably massive amounts of information now accessible by them.
Information made public last year by Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency already possesses the ability to capture every single phone call made in an entire country. The addition of a $2.0 billion-plus NSA data center in Utah, now in the final stages of construction, ensures all of this data can be collected, data-based, stored in perpetuity, and analyzed as desired.
In spite of indisputable evidence that reform is overdue, Congress and the President continue to dawdle; permitting the agencies to continue to engage in ill-defined and at times illegal projects – masked by a virtually impenetrable veil of secrecy that even some members of congressional intelligence committees are blocked from piercing. Every recent attempt to enact meaningful reform is either sabotaged from within, or rejected outright.
Having a strong and effective foreign intelligence capability is essential to America’s national security. However, by neglecting its morally- and constitutionally-obligated responsibility for setting clear boundaries for how these agencies operate, contemporary congresses have served as enablers for the type of behavior that culminated in this most recent, direct attack on Congress itself. Aside from some appropriate criticism of Brennan and his agency by at least some members of Congress, recent history affords us little cause for optimism that meaningful reform will result.
In much the same way as former President Bush awarded former CIA Director George Tenet the Medal of Freedom rather than firing him for failing to defend against the 9/11 attacks, Barack Obama effusively praised Brennan after it was revealed the agency he heads spied on the Senate and he then lied about it.
Removing Brennan from office should be but the first in a series of steps by the President and the Congress to conduct a thorough house-cleaning of this important arm of our government. Accountability – which our government rightly demands for Snowden – is and must be made to be a two-way street. A special prosecutor from outside the government should be appointed to oversee a criminal investigation of this latest and serious cyber-attack on the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of our government. And, until true oversight reform is implemented, Congress should use the power of the purse to cut off funding for programs and offices engaged in illegal and unconstitutional activities.
The time truly has come to end the too-cozy relationship between the watchers and the watched; it is time for oversight of the oversight.