Prior to the start of the Church Committee hearings in 1975, Senator Frank Church (D/ID) referred to the CIA as a “rogue elephant out of control.” I had a conversation with Senator Church in the late 1970s, and he agreed that his remarks were an overstatement and that there were no examples of the CIA conducting even unsavory operations that were not in response to instructions or guidance from the White House.
However, we now have an example of the CIA as a “rogue elephant out of control” in its efforts to block the investigation of the Senate intelligence committee into CIA torture and abuse. For the first time in my memory, the CIA has challenged the constitutional principle of separation of powers, and the oversight committee–the Senate intelligence committee–seems unable to respond effectively.
In March 2014, CIA director John Brennan emphatically denied that CIA officers had penetrated a computer network used by the Senate intelligence committee and had removed seminal documents relevant to the investigation. Brennan, who is known for having tight control over the departments and the decisions of the CIA, said the charge was “beyond the scope of reason.”
Five months later, Brennan apologized to the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee for the CIA’s surreptitious search of congressional computers as well as for the fact that CIA officers created a false online identity to access congressional computers and even to read the email of committee staffers. If Brennan knew in advance about this activity, he should have been immediately fired; if Brennan didn’t know, he should have been immediately fired because it testified to the fact that he has lost control of his Agency.
President Obama expressed “full confidence” in Brennan in the wake of these disclosures, but key members of the Senate intelligence committee, including minority chairman Saxby Chambliss, have emphasized that there is a total lack of trust between the committee and the CIA director. Twenty years ago, the Senate similarly made it clear that it had lost confidence in President Bill Clinton’s CIA director, James Woolsey, and Woolsey was forced to resign. It is bizarre to learn that the CIA spied on the oversight committee of the Senate and lied about it to the committee chairman, but that Brennan received a vote of confidence from the President. Once again, President Obama has demonstrated his insecurity in dealing with the national security community, particularly the Pentagon and the CIA.
All of this points to the claxon that I sounded at the Senate confirmation hearings in 1991 regarding the damage to the moral compass of the CIA as well as my book in 2008 that tracked the failures in operational and analytical tradecraft, particularly the false intelligence that helped to justify the war against Iraq in 2003. But the most recent crisis is worse than any of these because the CIA destroyed the “torture tapes” in 2005 and then repeatedly lied to the White House and the Congress about sadistic torture and abuse as well as the results of its so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The involvement of CIA lawyers in the campaign to block oversight is more than an example of egregious dysfunction, and the failure of the Department of Justice to prosecute the obvious obstruction of justice and the violation of the separation of powers points to a constitutional crisis.
I felt that no one was really paying attention to the travesty of politicized intelligence that I documented in 1991. And now I must ask again, “Is anyone paying attention to any of this?” In addition to the limited attention that the issue received from the mainstream media, President Obama answered a question at a news conference last week about the Senate report by stating that “We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks.” Well, if we “tortured some folks,” then perhaps we need to know the folks that did the torturing. Of course, the CIA’s redaction of the report included the pseudonyms of the operations officers who conducted the “enhanced interrogation techniques.” It is “beyond the scope of reason” that anyone, including the commander in chief, could read or even be briefed on the sadistic activity that dominates the torture report and blithely answer any question on the topic.
Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of “The Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008) and “National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism” (City Lights Publishers, 2013).