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Worse than Watergate?


In a world where political hyperbole has become so prevalent that it has for the most part lost the ability to impact an audience, it's easy to routinely dismiss things like the commonly tossed-around Watergate comparisons that abound in political media. Indeed, it's practically newsroom SOP to affix a gate suffix to any scandal big enough to make the evening broadcast – Lewinsky-gate, Benghazi-Gate, Bridge-gate, etc.

However, though it does not seem to be inciting anywhere near the outrage it warrants, comparisons between that seminal Washington crime and the recent admission of the CIA spying on a Senate oversight committee are not only valid but perhaps understated.

The idea that the Central Intelligence Agency would hack into a Senate committee's database, and even destroy documents that were entered into it, should send shivers down the spine of every American. From what I've seen, that has not been the case. There may be many reasons that such audacity fails to resonate, not the least of which being our own daily acquiescence into a world where the very idea of online privacy is becoming something of an oxymoron.

Every day, Americans (myself included) routinely check boxes on various user agreement updates without so much as scanning the virtual reams of small-print type loaded with legal jargon regarding ways that the user privacy policy has been modified. After all, they pop up so often, who could possibly find time to read them all? Indeed, if we've opened the application in the first place, it's usually because we have work that requires it – click, close and forget about it.

For most Americans, it seems a trade they are happy to make. Give us plenty of convenience for free, or at least on the cheap, and then collect all the data you'd like, just so long as we don't suffer the nightmarish inconveniences of identity theft. In fact, when I discuss the matter with most people, I find that when it comes to government spying, the vast majority already assume that the state has much greater legal latitude and ability to cull their data and habits.

Newsflash: even the CIA doesn't have the right to spy on Congress – especially when it's a committee investigating the CIA! When President Truman oversaw the creation of the CIA after WWII, he expressed grave reservations about such a powerful shadow agency and ensured that its charter specifically prohibited domestic spying. Unfortunately, post 9/11 panic saw that critical separation muddied and the result, compounded by rapidly evolving information technology, is our arrival at something that certainly seems even worse than Watergate.

The current mess began with President Obama's promise to end a policy enacted by the Bush Administration which effectively sanctioned torture as a valid tactic in intel gathering. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which effectively acts as watchdog for the CIA and the rest of the U.S. Intelligence Community, spent six years and $40 million producing the so-called "Torture Report."

The Bush-era justification for torture, or "enhanced interrogation techniques" as they liked to call it, was that it was a necessary and effective tool that needed to be carefully used on some occasions to produce certain intel – a greater good or perhaps lesser evil proposition. During the run up to the report's completion, the CIA was also hit with the Edward Snowden scandal, in which it had to embarrassingly admit to Congress that it had been lying about the scope of both its domestic and international spying programs.

For the report on torture, the Senate Intelligence Committee was instructed by the CIA to compile its security-sensitive information on a CIA database at a CIA facility, though with the understanding that the agency would not be able to access the data. In March, we first heard accusations that CIA agents had breached the system and even removed some of the documents the committee had uploaded.

Once information from the report began to be released, it became clear that an agency already nervous about what Washington and the American people knew about its activities, would only be compounded by what they were likely to learn next – that the torture techniques were much more widespread and much less effective than we were led to believe, while the agency had deliberately misled Congress and planted stories in the media in order to manufacture consent.

From the beginning, CIA Director John Brennan vehemently denied the claims that the CIA was spying on the committee. In fact, he was indignant at the mere suggestion, and his response was so fast that he couldn't have even looked into it superficially. The CIA just would not do that. Of course, it wasn't long before they were forced to admit, that they did exactly that, though they did offer an apology.

The President's first response was to praise Brennan for initiating the CIA's internal report. On the eve of the report's supposed release (it has since been delayed indefinitely over arguments as to what should be redacted), the President acknowledged that "we tortured some folks," but also pretty much chalked it up to post 9-11 emotions that were an understandable, if ultimately immoral response.

At this point, Brennan looks like he might come out of it unscathed, job intact, despite the fact that he was either lying when he said it wasn't occurring, or had lost control of an agency willing to defy the constitution without its director's knowledge or approval. Keeping Brennan is also compounded by the possible appearance that the President would be protecting himself, as no one would seem to know more than Brennan about the President's drone program, which could later be seen as his own Torture-gate level scandal, as many of the highly-secretive killings are alleged to have violated international law, wartime laws and our own 5th Amendment.

Meanwhile, in addition to violating the separation of powers that are at the very core of the American system of government and its constitution, the CIA spying would seem to have violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and maybe even the 4th Amendment. This shouldn't be slap on the wrist sort of stuff, and it should also be noted that this is the biggest investigation into the CIA since the Iran-Contra Affair and we're again learning unthinkable things about the agency.

The only other real behind the curtain glance we've gotten since were in the materials leaked by one of its employees and ditto for all of the red flags that sent up. It seems that every time we look into the CIA we find major problems, but the answer isn't to stop looking or ingore what we find when we do inspect.

Helming an agency like the CIA means a certain level of responsibility, one that Brennan has failed to show. But as a country, especially one as powerful as ours, having an agency like the CIA means being responsible for it as well – whether it's violating its charter as in the MK-ULTRA or Operation Mockingbird projects, or unjustly and disastrously interfering in the elected democracies of other countries (click here for a pretty good list of examples).

The CIA has a very checkered past that seems to result chiefly from a prevailing internal view that the agency is above the laws of our land and the constitution it exists to protect – that anything it does is inherently for the greater good, simply because it's doing it in the first place. If Americans stand by while such a culture is allowed to fester and grow, they deserve no sympathy when such chickens come home to roost.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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