Conspiracy theorists have been saying for a long time that the Central Intelligence Agency is monitoring America covertly, but for the most part it seems as though they are tin-foiled crackpots who also believe that Elvis lives. Now the CIA has confirmed that it actually does covertly monitor some Americans, specifically United States senators, in a nefarious way, which has to have the crackpots crowing with victory. Apologies have been issued and steps have seemingly been taken to correct the problem. Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed that the story is not more interesting. In the real world of intelligence policy and oversight, however, the CIA admitting to hacking senators has left many questions unanswered and serious doubts about the agency’s future leadership.
The public story of the hacking scandal began in March when California Senator Diane Feinstein alleged on the floor of the United States Senate that members of the intelligence committee were being spied on. That in itself would have been bombshell news, but the fact that the committee was in the process of investigating the agency over its interrogation techniques made it even more serious. The simplified version of the story was that the CIA was spying on the committee in order to track the progress of its investigation into the agency’s torture record under George W. Bush. For many, including Feinstein, this represented a serious Constitutional breach of privacy as well as serious legal and ethical misconduct.
The story initially seemed farfetched and because of the sensitive nature of intelligence matters it had little corroboration in the form of hard evidence. At the time, some were questioning whether the story was credible at all, including the CIA Director John Brennan. He said that the claims were “spurious,” even implying that they were crazy when he added, “That’s just beyond the scope of reason.” Crackpots all over America were offended by that remark, as was Senator Feinstein whose position as chair of the senate intelligence committee seemed to give her a good basis for speaking out. But without hard evidence to back up her claims, Feinstein was left out in the cold on the issue as investigations into the CIA’s doings continued. Brennan’s “crackpot defence” seemed to have worked.
Today, however, Brennan admits that the agency has been hacking Senators computers in order to keep tabs on their investigations into the agency, just as Feinstein has said. In a statement released by the inspector general, it is confirmed that Senate documents and drives were accessed, their emails were monitored, and at least three IT staff “demonstrated a lack of candor” about what all they were up to, which seemed mightily suspicious. While the full report is still a classified document and has not been made available for public review, the unclassified statement by the inspector general is enough of a vindication for now. The saga Feinstein began in March has come to a close only for another intelligence brouhaha to begin.
One of the lingering questions now is what exactly the role of agency director John Brennan was in the whole scheme. Did he help cover it up? Or was he ignorant of the whole affair? The White House has praised him for his role in starting up an accountability scheme for the CIA, stating that it sees no reason to fire him from his position. Others are not so sure. Mother Jones has published a piece pointing out Brennan’s previous statements and how the outcome has not lined up with his confident prediction that the agency would be vindicated. The piece speculates that there are only two reasons why he made such claims. Either he did not know what was going on in the organization he was supposed to run, or he knew and was helping to cover-up the matter. In either case, Mother Jones argues, he deserves to be fired.
The White House has denied any credibility issues on the part of Brennan. It recently lauded him not only for setting up the investigation into hacking claims, but for responding to the report by taking steps to ensure it does not happen again. All in all, the White House seems to believe that Brennan is good at his job and is going to keep him for now. Without the full report, it is hard to do more than speculate on Brennan’s role in the matter and on his future employment status. It is possible that the White House knows something that the public at large does not and that is why it has taken this stance. Despite what has been confirmed about the CIA’s activities, there are still more questions than real answers.
At the very least, three things have come out of the news that the they really did spy on the Senate. The truth has finally come out and the intelligence agency has apologized for what many people knew they were doing all along. New processes of accountability have apparently been set up to keep the agency as honest as possible, though whether they will work in reality is a question left open to answer. Finally, both Senator Feinstein and American crackpots have been vindicated in their belief that the CIA has been hacking them now that the agency admits it. Score one for the tinfoil hats.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury