Even before open war erupted last week between the CIA and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), embattled NSA officials had woven tangled skeins to downplay public crimes including lying to Congress.
Many observers have noted the double standard apparent in Feinstein challenging the CIA while deferring to the NSA. Few have recognized that both the NSA's pattern of spying and then lying about it and the CIA's trajectory of first committing torture crimes, then spying on Congress to cover it up, then lying about the spying when caught, can be described in a single word: corruption.
CIA: Spying on Congress to Cover Up Criminal Human-Rights Violations
Sen. Feinstein knows as much about the CIA's detention and torture programs under the Bush administration -- which went well beyond the acts depicted in photographs from Abu Ghraib -- as anyone outside the CIA. She described them as "un-American and brutal," and her colleague Mark Udall (D-Colo.) called them both "brutal and ineffective."
Beyond their brutality, their ineffectiveness as an intelligence tool, and the fact that they violated fundamental American values and foreign-policy interests, the programs were also international crimes at least partly responsible for the deaths of U.S. military servicemembers. Releasing the Senate's authoritative, 6,000-page, $40-million report to the public is long overdue -- especially for an administration that falsely champions transparency while routinely undermining it.
While the CIA's torture program prompted Feinstein to begin her committee's investigation, it was the agency's continuing coverup that prompted her to voice her concerns on the Senate floor in a speech described by her colleague Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) as the most important he had ever witnessed in his 40-year career in the Senate.
Feinstein revealed that CIA personnel had removed files from the computers used by Senate staff to conduct their investigation, and that a CIA lawyer himself complicit in human-rights abuses has tried to intimidate Senate investigators by outrageously seeking their prosecution -- for obtaining an internal CIA document confirming facts that the agency is trying to continue covering up.
Ultimately, the CIA's attempt to limit what material its congressional overseers can review smacks of self-interest and reflects an evasion of accountability for severe institutional crimes. Brennan's confirmation by the committee last spring entitled him to lead the CIA, not to place it above the law.
NSA: Lies to Congress and the Public to Cover Up Mass Surveillance
Observers from across the political spectrum have agreed that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper either misled Congress or lied outright when asked a straightforward question by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in a March 2013 Senate hearing.
With advance notice, Clapper was asked whether the NSA collects "any type of data at all on millions ... of Americans." He answered, "No sir. Not wittingly." In June the Snowden revelations shocked the globe and proved that his statement was simply not true, not to mention self-serving.
Many people have gone to prison for less-significant lies than that.
Responding to Clapper's admittedly false answer to Wyden, seven Republican members of Congress wrote to the attorney general in December seeking a Justice Department investigation into potential perjury. They correctly noted, "Congressional oversight depends on truthful testimony," which is why "witnesses cannot be allowed to lie to Congress."
Members of Congress from both parties and both chambers are not alone in calling for accountability: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington called for an investigation nearly a year ago, followed by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and grassroots activists and organizations from across the country.
Obama: On the Sidelines While His Legacy Is Sealed
How else might we describe demonstrably false, self-serving statements by NSA officials paid by taxpayers to perform a public service, or CIA efforts to secretly hamstring investigations into their activities by the elected officials charged with overseeing them? In any country that claims to be a democracy, the most elegant answer is a single word -- corruption -- with crucial connotations for a contemporary debate that remains limited, even after the Snowden revelations.
As members of Congress have challenged executive agencies covering up their crimes, President Obama has absurdly attempted to evade responsibility. This maneuver, like his initial decision to "look forward, not back" on torture, is what I described then as "an illegal capitulation to illegitimate political interests carrying profound consequences for human rights and freedom both in the U.S. and around the world."
President Obama's evasion is the antithesis of President Truman's reminder that "the buck stops here" and undermines his own prior commitment to releasing at least parts of the Senate's torture report. Coming from an administration that has accepted poorly deserved awards for transparency in ironically appropriate secret meetings, this tacit support for executive lawlessness is a spectacular -- though entirely unsurprising -- failure.