Ted Rall: CIA Spying on Congress, Foolish Spooks and Senators

In this exclusive to aNewDomain.net commentary, political columnist Ted Rall digs into news about the CIA’s spying on U.S. senators. Here’s why it’s hilarious.

aNewDomain.net — Most people are horrified by the totalitarian extent of the NSA programs revealed by Edward Snowden. But the post-9/11 security state isn’t all gloomy cabbage-soup-and-grit Orwellian dystopia, says Ted Rall in this exclusive commentary for aNewDomain. Turns out the CIA has been spying on members of the U.S. Senate.

The end of privacy, it turns out, is having positive effects. If there are embarrassing photos of and/or factoids about most people on the Internet, for example, then they’re de facto not a big deal — and thus no longer something to be ashamed about.

Privacy is the midwife of shame. Let a million nudie selfies upload forth!

Another laudable side benefit of the guvmint’s attempt to know everything about everyone all the time: It’s funny.

Case in point: the hardworking spooks at the NSA, CIA, FBI and DIA have unintentionally become virtual keystone cops, transforming the federal government into a live-action version of the MAD magazine comic strip “Spy vs. Spy” in which Total Information Awareness (the name of a data mining program that was officially terminated after a public outcry, then immediately and quietly renamed, revived and expanded) has become an end in and of itself.

Which, when it gets out of hand, makes them look hilariously dumb.

When intelligence agencies operate with impunity, their classified budgets off the books and basically unlimited, there’s no end to their quest for digital data. They begin by going after enemies, extend their interest to political irritants and then, after they’ve run out of plausibly legitimate targets, inevitably wind up chasing ghosts. So this week’s story that the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee are each accusing the other of spying on each other can only serve as a reminder that: (A) The intelligence apparatus of the United States is run by very silly people, (B) Such fools are more to be mocked than feared, and (C) Rulers who get made fun of by their subjects tend not to remain in power forever.

First the background.

Between 2001 and 2006 the CIA outsourced the torture of terrorism suspects kidnapped via “extraordinary renditions” to an archipelago of secret prisons (known as “black sites“) overseas. Nations alleged to have hosted these torture centers included the Czech RepublicHungaryPolandRomaniaArmeniaGeorgiaLatviaBulgariaAzerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Many other countries, such as Thailand, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Iraq and Afghanistan are also believed to be on the list. After 2006 the CIA transferred its surviving torture victims to the Guantánamo concentration camp/prison.

When Obama took office in 2009, ranking Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee set out to create a comprehensive history of the Bush-era black sites and what went on there. The President refused to order the CIA to provide the senators with copies of the millions of relevant classified CIA documents. Instead, the CIA let committee members look at them at a special room at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

While the Senate Intelligence Committee worked on its report, then-CIA director Leon Panetta asked the agency to create its own, parallel version of events.

The New York Times recounts Jeremy Bash, who was Mr. Panetta’s chief of staff at the CIA as saying:

This was not designed to be an analysis or rebuttal or alternative report. It was designed to merely keep track of, and provide short summaries of the documents that were being provided to the committee …”

Some people who have read the review memos said that parts of them were particularly scorching in their analysis of extreme interrogation methods like waterboarding, which the memos described as providing little intelligence of any value.

The committee investigators set to work, spending hours each day in the windowless basement of a nondescript building that advertised itself as a CIA office by the cluster of marked CIA police cars guarding the front.

In late 2012, the Senate committee finished its report, which was highly critical (which, considering the subject was kidnapping and torture of people, many of whom have since been exonerated and never charged with a crime, comes as a relief).

“Parts of the C.I.A. report cast a particularly harsh light on the program, the same program the agency was in the midst of defending in a prolonged dispute with the intelligence committee,” reported The Times.

The committee submitted it to the CIA for a response, which — under Panetta’s successor John Brennan — amounted to stonewalling, denials and excuses for the agency’s conduct at the black sites.

And that brings us to the present day. Turns out that Senate investigators at the special room in Langley obtained Panetta’s initial internal review or some truncated version of it — which, because it was never intended for outsiders to see it, was far more forthcoming.

The CIA was not pleased.

So they did what came naturally: They broke into the Senate Intelligence Committee’s computers.

You read that right: The subject of a congressional investigation spied on the very same congressional committee investigating them.

Look, I get it. Who wouldn’t want to know what the cops know about them?

But we’re talking Walter White levels of hubris here.

The Times again:

What the CIA. did next opened a new and even more rancorous chapter in the struggle over how the history of the interrogation program will be written. Agency officials began scouring the digital logs of the computer network used by the Senate staff members to try to learn how and where they got the report. Their search not only raised constitutional questions about the propriety of an intelligence agency investigating its congressional overseers, but has also resulted in two parallel inquiries by the Justice Department — one into the CIA. and one into the committee.”

Brennan isn’t backing down. He accuses the senators of a security breach — stealing classified information they weren’t entitled to. The senators, on the other hand, aren’t pleased — to say the least — that the CIA hacked their computers.

“Even if the agency is technically correct on the legalities,” an anonymous U.S. official told the McClatchy wire service, “it’s a real asinine thing to pick a fight with your oversight committee like this. You’ve got to be asking yourself why the agency would be willing to take such a risk. The documents must be so damned loaded.”

Who’d have guessed that a detailed history of heinous acts of torture would come to light in such a funny way?

Exclusive to aNewDomain.net, I’m Ted Rall.

Based in New York, Ted Rall is a nationally-syndicated columnist, editorial cartoonist and war correspondent who specializes in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The author of 17 books, most-recently published The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt, Rall is twice the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Follow him @TedRall, check out his Facebook fan page and definitely follow his Google+ stream here. Ted’s upcoming book After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan is due out in 2014.