The Great Debate

The serious costs of weak CIA oversight

In her angry broadside at the CIA on the Senate floor last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman, said, “I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search … may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function.”

She is right.

Congress has the constitutional authority to do robust oversight of executive branch activities.

Lost in the noise about who spied on whom in this continuing fight between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA over release of a massive report on interrogations, is the history behind the skirmish.

The intelligence committees were created to address revelations of the Nixon administration’s documented spying on Americans, including illegal wiretapping and surveillance of civilian anti-Vietnam War protesters.  The new House and Senate Intelligence Committees were granted “all necessary authority to exercise effective oversight over the intelligence agencies” and the executive branch was directed to keep the new committee fully and currently informed about its activities. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) passed by large bipartisan margins in 1978.

This structure worked well until 9/11, when the Bush/Cheney White House decided to invoke the president’s emergency “commander in chief” authority under Article II of the Constitution.

Can Congress control the CIA?

The current fight between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA – each accuses the other of spying on it – is part of the deep, continuing struggle between the legislative and executive branches of government over the wide-ranging power of the intelligence agency in the post-9/11 world.

The immediate dispute is about the committee’s lengthy study of the CIA’s harsh interrogation policies, used during the Bush administration. But underlying all the charges and counter-charges is a larger question: Can Congress genuinely exercise  its authority if the intelligence agencies can classify, and so control, the committee’s oversight efforts?

The CIA has blocked the release of a powerful report from a duly constituted congressional committee, keeping it under “review” for 16 months. CIA officials claim the report contains many inaccuracies. Although President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he was “absolutely committed” to declassifying the report, he was vague on when he would do so.

Our fierce fight over torture

The new Congress versus the CIA battle over “hacking” Senate computers and “spying” isn’t about surveillance. It’s about torture.

We have never had a full reckoning for our government’s use of torture on terror suspects after September 11. There were no prosecutions of military officers or senior officials. (One soldier was imprisoned for abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, former Corporal Charles Graner, while four officers received administrative demerits, not prosecution.) Remarkably, there has not even been a full release of classified government investigations into U.S. torture. It’s hard to get accountability in the dark.

That repressed history is the real context for the remarkable fight that spilled into public view when Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) spoke on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

Drones: From bad habit to terrible policy

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently lambasted legislation that may prevent the White House from transferring the lethal drone program from the CIA to the Defense Department. The provision is in a classified part of the bill, so the public may never know what it says.

This culture of secrecy underscores the reality that real drone reform is on the verge of conclusively failing to launch. Despite months of political fury and negative press, the drone program and its worst impulse — to kill without accountability for who is killed and why — are poised to become a permanent part of the way the United States conducts counterterrorism.

If there is to be any real reform on drone strikes, it must come this year — while the revelations over National Security Agency surveillance are keeping heat on the White House. Secrecy is the common denominator of the criticism the White House faces on both issues. President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on transparency and reform will always trigger cynicism so long as his administration’s practices of official secrecy continue.

On NSA, Obama still says ‘trust me’

President Barack Obama’s speech on Friday on intelligence reform marked a bullish shift in his approach to the National Security Agency.

The president dropped the pretense that there was “nothing to see here” — which his administration has offered since former government contractor Edward Snowden first revealed the NSA.’s expanding surveillance. Obama now acknowledges that there are problems to be solved. Yet his reforms boiled down to “trust me.”

While Obama did announce several new ways to increase accountability at the NSA, most were limited to executive actions. So the president basically changed his mind about the limits that he wants to place on his own powers. That means he can just as easily change his mind again and reverse course. So can the next president.

The danger in shutting down national security

The nation awoke Tuesday to find much of the federal government closed for business. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had refused to fund essential government functions until the rest of Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to reverse a healthcare law passed three years ago and deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court. By doing so, they put reversing healthcare reform ahead of protecting the nation.

Hundreds of thousands of national security professionals are now on furlough. The latest Office of Management and Budget guidance notes no function has been discontinued that would “imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property.” The Defense Department made clear that “military personnel would continue in normal duty status.”

But even furloughing “non-essential personnel” undermines U.S. security. It hits three critical areas: the Defense Department’s civilian employees, the intelligence community and the agencies that respond to health emergencies.

Building America’s secret surveillance state


“God we trust,” goes an old National Security Agency joke.  “All others we monitor.

Given the revelations last week about the NSA’s domestic spying activities, the saying seems more prophecy than humor.

First, the Guardian reported details on a domestic telephone dragnet in which Verizon was forced to give the NSA details about all domestic, and even local, telephone calls. Then the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed another massive NSA surveillance program, called Prism, that required the country’s major Internet companies to secretly pass along data including email, photos, videos, chat services, file transfers, stored data, log-ins and video conferencing.

How liberal Hollywood fell in love with the CIA

The new icon of Hollywood is not a celebrity or a movie franchise — it’s the CIA. In 2012, the year’s most award-winning and popular “quality” films  – Argo, Zero Dark Thirty  – as well as 2012′s best television show (Homeland) were all about The Agency, usually bathed in quite a positive light. Why have the upper reaches of the entertainment business started to love the CIA, after years of offering more troubling images on screen?

One answer is that it has been a decade since the invasion of Iraq, and it would seem that the Iraq War itself (Abu Ghraib, civilian deaths, trillions of dollars) has sullied the image of the U.S. military. It has apparently become so tainted that Hollywood believes it can no longer assume officers are gentlemen. Military pilots no longer serve audience desire for moral clarity, as in the age of Top Guntoday, the star performers of the Air Force are pilotless drones, for one thing. And generally there are fewer soldiers and veterans on screen than after other recent wars; no equivalent of Jon Voight in a wheelchair in the Vietnam film Coming Home or World War Two’s The Best Years of Our Lives, which starred an actual double-amputee veteran.

Instead, today’s films have all-knowing agents, who tap, bug and lie with impunity yet somehow always wind up heroes. In Argo, it’s CIA operative Tony Mendez, smuggling American embassy workers out of Iran after the revolution. In Zero Dark Thirty, it’s a CIA employee who successfully hunts down Osama. If we throw MI6 into the mix in Skyfall, it’s a more realistic James Bond saving the agency itself from a plausible threat.

Questions for Brennan on the kill list

During the Iraq invasion the U.S. government and military posted its “Most Wanted” list of terrorists or fleeing officials, issued as a deck of cards, complete with a “Wanted: Dead or Alive” tag. The list went out to anyone and everyone, with hefty rewards advertised.

Now, however, the government’s kill list for drone strikes is opaque. It doesn’t even refer to actual people, and sometimes targets places where military-age males suspected of terrorist activity gather.

Congress will have an opportunity Thursday to hear from the man who, with the president, often helps decide who appears on that list. For John Brennan is due to face the Senate Intelligence Committee during his confirmation hearing to be the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Brennan, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and the torture firestorm

Controversy over the U.S. use of torture erupted again with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. President Barack Obama has now added fuel to this fire by nominating John Brennan, his chief counterterrorism adviser, to be CIA director.

Brennan was deputy CIA director when the agency was engaged in rendition and torture. He was, as reported by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, a supporter of enhanced interrogation techniques and in 2005 described the rendition program as “absolutely vital” ‑ though he has since condemned waterboarding.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with the words “based on firsthand accounts of actual events,” then quickly moves into a lengthy, horrific torture sequence. After a detailed dramatization of the hunt, the movie ends with Americans killing bin Laden ‑ leading many viewers to believe that torture was crucial to the successful outcome.