The CIA shows its fangs at home: Neil Macdonald

The CIA is accused of lying to Congress about torturing detainees, and spying on the Congressional oversight committee investigating its secret prisons. If true, writes Neil Macdonald, it's an attack on American democracy. And the public doesn't seem to care.

Spy agency allegedly hacked into senate committee computer

CIA Director John Brennan has denied allegations by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Feinstein said Tuesday the CIA improperly searched a computer network established for Congress in its investigation of allegations of CIA abuse. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

The Central Intelligence Agency is a fearsome shield.

It has kidnapped, tortured, hatched assassinations, stolen, eavesdropped, carried out experiments on human beings, even brought down governments, all in the name of protecting America.

Its powers are amplified by its professional expertise at stealth, misdirection, and coverups. Proof is often legally unobtainable.

So, it operates under two absolute prohibitions.

Just as the Roman army was forbidden to enter Rome, the CIA must restrict itself to foreign operations. And it must submit to Washington’s civilian authority and oversight. It is required to use its fangs abroad, and show its throat here at home.

The logic is obvious: to allow covert employees of America’s deep state to turn inward would risk transforming this country into something more like the nations where the words “secret police” inspire fear.

Slipping its legal leashes

In recent years, though, it appears the agency has chosen to slip both of its legal leashes.

In a remarkable speech to Congress this week, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein accused the CIA of spying on one of its principal overseers – the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Feinstein chairs.

As the New York Times put it: "Feinstein has provided stark and convincing evidence that the C.I.A. may have committed crimes" to cover up a torture program in its "black" prisons during George W. Bush’s so-called war on terror.

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Long story short, Feinstein’s oversight committee has been trying for years to properly assess the program.

An initial review by her committee staff in 2009, said Feinstein in her speech, “was chilling. The interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detention sites were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us.”

So, the committee decided to probe further. But the CIA, rather than handing over the requested records (it pre-emptively destroyed videotapes of the torture) proceeded to obstruct, stall, and generally stonewall, then turned around and tried to drown Feinstein’s staff with millions of unindexed documents — “a true document dump,” in her words.

When researchers did find interesting documents, the CIA took them back, electronically deleting nearly a thousand from the database provided the committee.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein says the CIA's search may have violated the constitution and has referred the issue to the Justice Department. (J.Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Nonetheless, Feinstein’s staff found gold — an internal CIA review of its own program that indicated the agency had lied to Congress about what had gone on, falsely claiming (among other things) that the torture had produced useful intelligence, an end-justifies-means defence Americans have been generally led to believe.

In other words, Feinstein’s staff did their job, and did it well, discharging their legal responsibility.

The CIA’s response: sending agents, who, according to Feinstein, surreptitiously broke into the intelligence committee’s computer, in an effort to discover how researchers had gained access to the internal review. The review, says Feinstein, now resides in a secure location on Capitol hill, safely (presumably) out of the agency’s reach.

 “Besides the constitutional implications,” of violating separation of powers by spying on its overseer, said Feinstein this week, “the C.I.A.’s search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the C.I.A. from conducting domestic searches or surveillance.”

CIA denies hacking claims

CIA director John Brennan immediately denied it — reportedly, the agency is asserting that they owned the actual computers the committee staff were using.

But then, Brennan is also the fellow who, as a more junior CIA official, oversaw the secret program the Bush administration liked to describe as “enhanced interrogations,” and which the rest of the world, including Barack Obama, called torture.

There was no hacking of computers, said Brennan. Ever a master of the euphemism, he preferred to call it a “search.”

But Feinstein’s revelations this week are in many ways even more chilling than the CIA program she was probing.

Taken together with the cascade of leaks about electronic spying on the communications of just about everyone in America by the National Security Agency, they reveal a disturbing pattern of rationalization – something secret officials throughout history have done in order to justify ever greater intrusions.

In the case of the NSA, President Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, flatly lied to Congress about its surveillance just before the leaks began.

Mind you, Feinstein herself has stoutly defended such expansions of secret power; it’s a bit rich that she’s only now leveling public denunciations, having learned that she herself was targeted.

She’s now referred the matter of the CIA’s actions against her committee to the Justice Department. The CIA, unbelievably, has asked Justice to investigate Feinstein’s committee.

What’s truly depressing, though, is the quiescence of the American public. Reports of Feinstein’s speech have generated news stories, but little evident public outrage.

Since 9/11, Americans have developed a supine trust in their deep state. As have Canadians, evidently; revelations of the same sort of electronic eavesdropping by the Communications Security Establishment, which has far less oversight than the NSA, have left the Canadian public relatively unperturbed.

It’s a combination of complacency, and fear.

Protect us, is the message, and do what you have to do.

We’re fine with it.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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