The CIA spying-on-Congress scandal is providing cover for the SSCI’s partisan 6,300-page report on the Bush-era enhanced-interrogation program, a series of harsh techniques — including waterboarding — to force terrorist suspects to provide intelligence on planned terrorist attacks.
The enhanced-interrogation program has long divided Democrats, Republicans, and intelligence officials. Democratic officials — especially Barack Obama, when he was a presidential candidate, and former House speaker Nancy Pelosi — claimed this program was illegal and was never briefed to Congress. CIA and GOP defenders of this program adamantly deny this and have cited CIA records showing that Pelosi was briefed on it.
The main focus of the SSCI probe reportedly is to prove Democratic claims that the effectiveness of the enhanced-interrogation program has been exaggerated. Former CIA director Michael Hayden and other former senior CIA officials involved in the enhanced-interrogation program dispute this. According to Hayden, as late as 2006 fully half of the government’s knowledge about the structure and activities of al-Qaeda came from harsh interrogations.
Despite their firsthand knowledge of the enhanced-interrogation program, there is no input in the SSCI report from Hayden, former CIA general counsel John Rizzo, or other CIA officials, since the report is based solely on an examination of documents. Its Democratic-staff authors refused to interview any of the CIA players involved.
The CIA has been highly critical of the committee’s investigation and issued a 120-page rebuttal last year raising objections to many of its findings and cataloging dozens of errors. While the probe was originally approved on a bipartisan basis, Republican SSCI members later withdrew their support. As a result, committee minority staff members were barred from working with the majority on the investigation and from access to a secure room in a CIA building set up for the investigation. The committee’s Republican staffers were instead provided with a separate secure room to access enhanced-interrogation documents.
Partisan bickering in the SSCI over the probe also has interrupted the work of the committee over the last few months on important current issues such as Syria and the Iranian nuclear program.
The bias of the SSCI report, the committee’s refusal to interview CIA officials who approved and monitored the enhanced-interrogation program, and the removal of classified documents by SSCI Democratic staff members from a CIA building without authorization have resulted in a report that is a partisan travesty that represents misuse of congressional oversight and politicization of intelligence.
The SSCI submitted the 480-page executive summary to the CIA for declassification so it could be released to the public. After the CIA returned the summary to the SSCI on Friday, Feinstein delayed releasing it “until further notice” because the CIA’s redactions were so extensive. This could be another drawn-out battle as the SSCI negotiates with the CIA and the White House to declassified more language in the summary.
When the summary is released, the news media are certain to downplay the fact that the final report is a Democratic report with no Republican support and instead claim that it breaks new ground on CIA abuses. However, given other domestic and international challenges facing this country, I believe the report will get little traction with the American public.
On the other hand, I believe the SSCI probe and its partisan final report will be taken very seriously by U.S intelligence agencies and will hurt Congress’s relationship with them, possibly by making intelligence agencies and officers less willing to cooperate with congressional oversight.
While I believe the SSCI probe is a partisan embarrassment, there is still an urgent need for CIA accountability in this affair.
The CIA’s response to the SSCI staff’s removing of classified documents from a CIA facility was incredibly reckless and needlessly jeopardized its relations with Senator Feinstein, one of the U.S. intelligence community’s few strong Democratic supporters in Congress. CIA director Brennan’s clumsy and arrogant comments made matters worse and have led to bipartisan calls for his resignation.
The CIA needs a partnership with Congress and the support of key members such as Feinstein to do its important work to protect our nation from new and emerging threats. It also must defend itself from a new wave of criticism against U.S. intelligence agencies by Americans worried about government secrecy and by some who do not understand the urgent need for the United States to maintain a robust foreign-intelligence capability to protect our nation in a dangerous world.
For these reasons, I believe CIA director John Brennan and agency officials involved in the monitoring of computers used by the SSCI staff must resign to help mend the CIA’s relationship with Congress. Such resignations would go a long way toward restoring the confidence of the SSCI in the CIA and, it is to be hoped, would win the agency and the National Security Agency some crucial allies in both houses of Congress to fend off several ill-advised intelligence-reform proposals currently under discussion there.
Although no laws were broken in the CIA’s monitoring of computers used by SSCI staff members, and statements by Director Brennan about this matter may have been accurate, this scandal is a CIA self-inflicted wound that Brennan made worse. For the good of the country and the CIA’s national-security mission, Brennan must go.
— Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst and House Intelligence Committee staff member, is a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy and chief analyst with LIGNET.com.