James Bond never dabbled in politics. The dubious morality of extrajudicial executions and seductions in the service of the country are fair game. But intelligence services are meant to be dumb about politics. Yet today, the CIA, the world’s premier spy service, finds itself in the centre of a political storm, accused by a senior US senator of spying on a legislative panel with direct oversight over the agency.
The CIA was caught spying on the panel by senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairperson of the US Congress’ Senate Intelligence Committee, in January. The panel, which has the constitutional responsibility to oversee the CIA’s workings, was investigating the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (others have used the word torture) used on terrorism suspects after the 9/11 attacks.
On 11 March, Feinstein went public, making a speech on the floor of the Senate (the Upper House of the US Congress) to reveal that the CIA had secretly searched the committee’s computers. Twice before since the investigation began in 2009, Feinstein said, it had quietly removed important documents on the torture methods after first providing them to the committee. When confronted by Feinstein, the agency denied that it had, and only apologised after the White House intervened.
To use the James Bond analogy, it is the cinematic equivalent of Bond holding the redoubtable M — played coincidentally by a woman in the latest Bond movies — hostage in the offices of Britain’s MI-6 and she blowing his cover while he was on a mission in North Korea. Except, the real-life transgression is more serious: Feinstein’s role as the overseer of the CIA is constitutionally protected.
In turn, the CIA accused the committee of illegally removing top-secret documents. The documents, called the Panetta Review, are now under lock and key at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s office in Washington, D.C. And there they will stay because the senator fears that they will be destroyed by the CIA to protect itself. The Panetta Review is an internal review of the torture programme written when Leon Panetta was the CIA director. The agency claims it is too secret to be viewed, much less removed, by the senate staff. It says the panel broke the law.
Feinstein disagrees, saying it could not be secret from the senate panel. Besides, the CIA provided the documents in the first place. “(They) were identified using the search tool provided by the CIA (among all 6.2 million documents provided),” Feinstein said in her speech, adding it was unknown if they were provided “intentionally” or “unintentionally” by the CIA or by a “whistleblower”.
Her fears are not unfounded. After all, the agency destroyed some 12 videotapes of detainees being tortured in 2005. “There was a need to preserve and protect the Panetta Review in the committee’s own secure spaces,” she said.
Speaking to this writer, former senior CIA official Paul Pillar said he “would not agree” that the agency was seeking to hide anything. “Both sides have overstepped boundaries. The committee was guilty of violating the understanding (with the CIA) by taking the documents out (of the agency-provided offices) and the agency by initiating an investigation instead of going back to the committee,” he said. Pillar, a 28-year CIA veteran who retired in 2005 and has served, among several other senior positions, as executive assistant to the CIA director, had an intriguing take on the spat.
Pillar suggested that senator Feinstein, whom he held in “great esteem” for her strong support of the intelligence community, could have been the victim of a simple misunderstanding, caused by summaries of the documents that the Panetta Review had been based on. He said what seemed like a damning indictment of the CIA’s torture programme was actually an innocuous list of allegations contained in the source documents, like the contents page in the opening section of a book. “Based on the explanation by (former director) Panetta, and others (inside the agency) the Panetta Review only summariszs the contents of these documents, not conclusions,” he said. However, Pillar said he was “disturbed” by the senate committee contradicting the agency’s official rebuttal to the committee’s 6,000-page report.
Nonetheless, what the CIA did next was astounding, and without any precedent. It approached the Justice Department with the demand that the committee’s staff be prosecuted, raising a mind-boggling array of legal and constitutional questions. The Senate Intelligence Committee also wanted the Justice Department to hold the CIA to account for illegally searching its computers and “intimidating” its staff.
Intriguingly, CIA director John Brennan flatly denied searching the committee’s computers. “We wouldn’t do that,” he said. Then he lobbed the ball directly to the political leadership. “If I did something wrong,” said Brennan, “I will go to the president and I will explain to him what I did and what the findings (of a CIA inquiry) were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.” Feinstein also put her faith in President Barack Obama. “We are not going to stop,” she declared, vowing to make the report public. “The White House has indicated publicly and to me personally that it supports declassification and release.”
The senate spat is the latest episode of the CIA’s steady pull into the whirl of Washington politics after 9/11. It began with the enhanced interrogation techniques drawn up with the help of a retired US Air Force psychologist, which caused worldwide uproar. The Bush administration took responsibility for that practice, but baulking at the massive costs of the Iraq war, blamed the inability to find weapons of mass destruction on an “intelligence failure” about their existence in the first place. It also pushed blame for abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, where detainees were “softened” up for enhanced CIA interrogation, on “a few bad actors”.
Under the Obama administration, the CIA’s politicisation continues. In 2011, Zero Dark Thirty scriptwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow were given access to CIA staff at the behest of the White House for details about the Navy seal operation to kill Osama bin Laden. The scriptwriter attended a secret ceremony at CIA headquarters at which agency director Panetta spoke, revealing top-secret information. The movie, which was released in election year 2012, helped drive Obama’s narrative as the vanquisher of al Qaeda. This narrative ran into trouble with the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya, but the administration played it down as only a protest against an anti-Islam video. It denied a terrorist attack. In the ensuing controversy, it again put the blame on the CIA, citing “talking points” provided by the agency to the White House.
Wittingly or unwittingly, Brennan has been in the thick of the action. Brennan, who was candidate Obama’s intelligence adviser in 2008, was nominated once before, in the first Obama administration. But the nomination was withdrawn because of his association with the torture programme. Brennan waited in the wings for four years as Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser until he became CIA director in 2013 after the re-election.
The manner in which he became director is noteworthy in the CIA’s conspiratorial universe. Brennan succeeded David Petraeus, who became director in 2011 at the height of his fame as one of the greatest generals in US history. He had salvaged a lost war in Iraq and had been summoned by Obama to save Afghanistan. At the time, he was even seen as a possible Republican candidate against Obama. Last year, the general’s career was finished, undone by a leaked affair with his biographer.
The exposé of the affair came out as suspicious: the FBI, which was probing a complaint from another woman about threatening emails from Petraeus’ lover, Paula Broadwell, uncovered the affair. The fact of an affair is not unusual in Washington or terribly unethical in civilian life — unlike in uniform, where it makes resignation an imperative. There were also sound reasons for keeping it quiet: the CIA director is the last man to be exposed to media scrutiny. But the affair was leaked and the long-time general resigned, as per military convention. At last, Brennan became CIA director.