Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, says that John Brennan, the director of the CIA who has finally admitted that he lied when he angrily and repeatedly insisted that the agency did not spy on staff members of the Senate committee charged with oversight US intelligence agencies, “has a lot of work to do,” before she can forgive him for lying to and spying on her committee.
Not really. The truth is Feinstein and her committee have a lot of work to do. If Brennan does not resign, or get forced out of his job, immediately, his work is done. That is to say, he will have succeeded in fatally wounding what’s left of the democratic, Constitutional government that traces its roots back to 1776.
The undermining of American democracy has a long history, but the process accelerated mightily after World War II, with the creation of the CIA, the National Security Agency and other three-letter intelligence organizations like the Defense Intelligence Agency and more recently the Department of Homeland Security.
During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, it became the accepted wisdom that to “defend” American freedom, it was necessary to create a secret government run by spooks and bureaucrats who answered only to the president and to a select few members of Congress, most notably the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Tossed aside was Ben Franklin’s warning: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,”
Rare indeed have been the occasions when that committee has actually exercised any real authority over the CIA or the other intelligence agencies, but as poor a job as the Congress has done in reining in secret government over the last 65 years, it has gotten worse since 9-11, when intelligence agencies were given essentially carte blanche to spy not just on suspected terrorists but ordinary American citizens, and not just those suspected of crimes, but all of us.
Now, we’ve reached this moment of truth, when the committee finally did do some actual investigating into the behavior of the CIA with regard to illegal rendition and torture of people suspected of terrorism or of plotting terrorist acts against the US. In response to the committee’s efforts to actually look into secret illegal CIA activities, Brennan’s spooks began spying on and monitoring the activities of those Senate investigators, who work directly for the people that the US public elects to act on their behalf. Even worse, the agency concocted fake evidence which it brought to the US Office of Attorney General, seeking to have criminal charges brought against those same staffers.
That is behavior clearly designed to intimidate a body — Congress — that is specifically charged under the US Constitution with monitoring and controlling the executive branch of the government and specifically the secret agencies it runs. If such intimidation is allowed to stand, the Congress, already largely a rubber stamp for executive power, will cease to be a branch of government at all, but will be simply a decoration, a name, a fossilized relic of what was once a co-equal branch of government. Its powers will be no more threatening to autocrats and tyrants than a fossilized Allosaurus China’s National People’s Congress.
This is not just another scandal involving corruption or incompetence. When Obama’s Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius resigned, it was because she did a terrible job of overseeing the implementation of the computerized system for creating markets for private insurance under Obamacare. When Brennan’s predecessor, Gen. David Petraeus, resigned as head of the CIA, it was for having a secret extramarital lover whose very existence made him a potential subject of blackmail — a clear no-no for head of an intelligence agency. When Alfonso Jackson, head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the George W. Bush administration, resigned, it was because of an investigation into charges of cronyism and favoritism in the awarding of government contracts. These are all bad things, and reason enough for a cabinet officer to be fired or be told to resign. But even if their actions went unpunished, and they continued in office, indeed even if their ineptness, foolishness or corruption went unnoticed, the fate of the Republic would not have been threatened by any of these people.
Brennan’s crime is of a different order. He didn’t simply abuse his power. He abused his power so as to fundamentally undermine the only branch of government — the Congress — that had retained the power under the Constitution to hold secret government in check. In that regard, his crime is similar to that of James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, who early this year lied to Congress when asked pointedly whether the National Security Agency was collecting personal data on millions of Americans. When caught lying by documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Clapper admitted he had lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee, claiming lamely that he had tried to give “the least untrue” answer he could. That “least untrue” answer, of course, was a brazen, flat-out lie. But even Clapper simply lied to Congress. There has been no solid evidence yet that he actually oversaw an effort to spy on Congress (though it seems likely that the NSA is doing so, and it has refused so far to deny that it spies on members of Congress, meaning it probably does.)
Brennan, however, has admitted to the CIA’s openly subverting Constitutional government–by spying on Congress, by lying about it, and by trying to fabricate criminal charges against Congressional investigators.
Why is he still in office as CIA director? Why, indeed, is Clapper still his boss, as head of National Intelligence?
The only conceivable answer at this point has to be that the members of Congress, including the members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the President, (who remember, has the absolute authority to fire both men at will), are so thoroughly corrupt and compromised themselves that they dare not go after these Constitutional criminals, jailing them for their utter contempt of Congress, and having them for high treason.
Leaving Clapper, and especially Brennan, in office is the ultimate surrender by Congress of what little remains of democratic government in the US. It is the end of the Constitution. If secret government cannot be called to account, then the country is being run by a secret government whose power no longer has any limits.
There are ways to recover government of, by and for the people, but they are no longer likely to involve elections, since secret government has the power to subvert elections. If Brennan and Clapper can get away with what they have thus far gotten away with — not just thumbing their noses at Congress, but actually spying on its members with impunity — then the only way to take back popular government remains overthrowing those in power, dragging them before public tribunals, and administering people’s justice, whatever form that may ultimately take.
Sen. Feinstein is wrong. Brennan doesn’t “have a lot of work to do.”
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).