With due respect to congressional Republicans who want to hold President Obama to account for supposedly exceeding his executive authority, and to congressional Democrats who want to hold House Republicans to account for failing to live up to their legislative responsibilities, members of both parties should be focusing now on the question of how to hold the Central Intelligence Agency to account.
CIA officials on Thursday acknowledged that agency operatives spied on computers that were being used by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staffers who were using to prepare report on an investigation of “enhanced interrogation” techniques and related detention issues. An inquiry by CIA Inspector General David Buckley determined that five CIA employees, two lawyers and three information technology specialists obtained access to what was supposed to be a secure network for the Senate staffers.
The CIA says agency employees “acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding” of how the agency and the Senate are supposed to communicate.
The translation from Colorado Senator Mark Udall adds clarity: “The CIA unconstitutionally spied on Congress by hacking into Senate Intelligence Committee computers.”
CIA director John Brennan has apologized to Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and the ranking Republican on the committee, Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss.
But if Congress is to maintain meaningful oversight over the federal intelligence agencies, the need for a meaningful response to what Senator Patrick Leahy describes as “a very dark chapter in our nation’s history” cannot be lost amid the usual flurry of internal inquiries, official apologies and “expressions of concern.” As Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, says, “We’re the only people watching these organizations, and if we can’t rely on the information that we’re given as being accurate, then it makes a mockery of the entire oversight function.”
King is right. But what, then, is the appropriate response?
Udall argues that Brennan should resign. “This grave misconduct not only is illegal, but it violates the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of separation of powers,” says the Colorado Democrat. “These offenses, along with other errors in judgment by some at the CIA, demonstrate a tremendous failure of leadership, and there must be consequences.”
Holding the head of the agency to account is one element of accountability. But the shuffling of those in leadership positions is only a part of a reassertion of the oversight function outlined in the Constitution. As Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, says, there must be a signal that it is “absolutely unacceptable in a democracy” for an intelligence agency to break into Senate computer files and to try to point fingers of blame at innocent Senate staffers.