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Time to tame the monster listening at the door

The CIA now admits that it spied on a U.S. Senate investigation into the agency’s shameful program of secret detention and torture. Do we need any more proof that the spooks are out of control?

An internal “accountability board” will look into the incident, an agency statement said, and might recommend “potential disciplinary measures” or even “steps to address systemic issues.”

Somehow, I don’t feel reassured.

You will recall that when Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California alleged in March that the CIA was rummaging through her panel’s computer files without permission, CIA Director John Brennan scoffed at the complaint with high-handed derision. “I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong,” he said.

Oops. An internal CIA probe discovered that, well, a good deal of spying and monitoring and hacking did take place. Brennan has reportedly apologized to Feinstein and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the ranking Republican on the committee — both of whom have been among the CIA’s staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill.

The White House has taken a la-de-dah attitude toward the revelation that the agency charged with spying on the machinations of our foreign enemies instead trained its focus on the official work of our elected officials. Asked whether Brennan now has a credibility problem, press secretary Josh Earnest said, “Not at all.”

Earnest is wrong on that score, but the problem is much bigger than Brennan. At stake is the principle that our intelligence agencies — like our military forces — must be subject to civilian oversight and control. The spooks apparently have a different arrangement in mind.

After the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney gave the intelligence agencies instructions and latitude that tested — and, in some cases, exceeded — legal, constitutional and moral strictures.

For the National Security Agency, this led to a massive program of electronic surveillance that kept track of the private communications of millions of Americans. Obama took steps to limit the program only after it was publicly revealed by fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden.

For the CIA, fighting the Bush-era “war on terror” involved holding terrorism suspects at secret overseas prisons in countries such as Poland and subjecting some of them to torture. Immediately after taking office in 2009, Obama put a permanent end to what the Bush administration euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”


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