CIA accused of spying on Congress

One of the recurrent themes of politics that would be amusing if it were not infuriating is how politicians are quite complacent about the rights of ordinary citizens being violated by the government but get enraged when they discover that they themselves are targets of those same abuses.

One recent example is German chancellor Angela Merkel. She did not seem particularly upset when the Edward Snowden documents revealed that the NSA and GCHQ were spying on German citizens on a massive scale, but got furious when it was revealed that her personal cell phone was one of those being tapped.

Earlier we had former California Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman, the long-time member of the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives where she defended the government’s illegal spying on people’s phone calls under the Bush administration. She was also one of the most loyal allies in congress of the Israel lobby. Alison Weir explains what wiretaps of her phone calls revealed.

According to reports, Harman allegedly told the Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department to reduce espionage-related charges against two top officials for the powerful Israel lobby organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

In return, the suspected Israeli agent (who may have been a dual-citizen American) reportedly pledged to help lobby for Harman to become chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Harman was already the ranking Democrat on the committee.

At the end of the conversation, Harman reportedly said: “This conversation doesn’t exist.”

The two AIPAC officials had been indicted for illegally obtaining classified documents about Iran and passing these on to Israel. They also gave them to prominent Washington Post journalist Glenn Kessler, whose speaker bio lists three topics: “Global Affairs, Jewish Interest, Middle East Issues.”

One of the indicted AIPAC officials has since defended himself by stating that his actions were routine for AIPAC – that AIPAC staffers regularly obtain and hand on classified U.S. information to Israel and others.

Harman was outraged when she learned that the government had tapped her own phone. As Glenn Greenwald wrote at that time:

So if I understand this correctly — and I’m pretty sure I do — when the U.S. Government eavesdropped for years on American citizens with no warrants and in violation of the law, that was “both legal and necessary” as well as “essential to U.S. national security,” and it was the “despicable” whistle-blowers (such as Thomas Tamm) who disclosed that crime and the newspapers which reported it who should have been criminally investigated, but not the lawbreaking government officials. But when the U.S. Government legally and with warrants eavesdrops on Jane Harman, that is an outrageous invasion of privacy and a violent assault on her rights as an American citizen, and full-scale investigations must be commenced immediately to get to the bottom of this abuse of power. Behold Jane Harman’s overnight transformation from Very Serious Champion of the Lawless Surveillance State to shrill civil liberties extremist.

The latest example of this dual standard comes from California senator Diane Feinstein who, like Harman, has been a stalwart defender of the government riding roughshod over the rights of people, using her powerful position as chair of the Senate Oversight Committee on Intelligence to shield those committing the abuses from criticism. Now the CIA is accused of spying on the staff of her own committee and presumably also on her and she is, of course, furious. She and the director of the CIA John Brennan have engaged in a public war of words.

The issue at hand is the massive report by the senate on the CIA’s torture practices that has yet to be released although it supposedly has been completed for some time. The CIA would clearly like to suppress the report and presumably wanted to influence the committee. Dan Frooomkin at The Intercept describes what is happening.

Two top Senate leaders declared Tuesday that the CIA’s recent conduct has undermined the separation of powers as set out in the Constitution, setting the stage for a major battle to reassert the proper balance between the two branches.

Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), in a floor speech (transcript; video) that Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) immediately called the most important he had heard in his career, said the CIA had searched through computers belonging to staff members investigating the agency’s role in torturing detainees, and had then leveled false charges against her staff in an attempt to intimidate them.

She also accused the CIA of obstructing her committee’s torture inquiry in general, and of disputing findings that its own internal inquiry had substantiated.

The document at the heart of this confrontation is an internal review conducted by the CIA of the materials it had turned over to Feinstein’s committee during the course of the four-year congressional investigation into the Bush-era torture practices.

Feinstein said the document, which has become known as the Panetta Review after then-director of the CIA Leon Panetta, was first discovered by committee staff using CIA-provided search tools in 2010. It became particularly relevant later, after the committee completed a scathing 6,300-page report in December 2012, and the CIA sent its official response in June 2013.

The committee’s detailed report is still classified, but it is known to be highly critical of both the CIA’s role in the torture regime and its campaign to deceive Congress about it. The CIA vehemently took issue with those conclusions.

Brennan has denied the allegations, with unnamed administration officials charging that the committee staffers took sensitive documents without proper authorization and that this warranted an investigation.

Edward Snowden in his interview at SXSW was quick to point out (thanks to Marcus Ranum for the link) the blatant hypocrisy on display here.

“It’s clear the CIA was trying to play ‘keep away’ with documents relevant to an investigation by their overseers in Congress, and that’s a serious constitutional concern,” said Snowden in a statement to NBC News. “But it’s equally if not more concerning that we’re seeing another ‘Merkel Effect,’ where an elected official does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies, but suddenly it’s a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them.”

It is always thus. Political leaders are quite content to have the rights of us plebeians trampled upon until they realize that the same methods can and will also be used against them. And then they become civil libertarians, at least for a short while.


  1. AsqJames says

    Political leaders are quite content to have the rights of us plebeians trampled upon until they realize that the same methods can and will also be used against them.

    This isn’t only true of “political leaders”. A worryingly large proportion of the population as a whole seem not to be able to ever imagine abuses of civil liberties being turned against them personally, and are thus content to allow those abuses to continue.

    This principle applies across any number of policy areas (stop and frisk, TRAP laws, welfare cuts, surveillance, border security, etc), and can be observed wherever such issues are debated whether politicians are involved or not (the Editorial & Comment pages of any newspaper, the comments sections below online articles, conversations with friends and colleagues, etc).

  2. sigurd jorsalfar says

    What’s Feinstein so upset about? The CIA was just keeping her safe from al qaeda terrorists in congress. She should be grateful.

  3. colnago80 says

    Of course, Feinstein and Harmon are hypocrites but there is actually a serious issue here, namely separation of powers. The Congress and the Judiciary are supposed to rein in the Executive when it gets out of line. If Executive branch operatives are spying on the other two branches, they can’t do their job, that is, if they really wanted to do their job.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *