The untransparent CIA

WASHINGTON — If the CIA spends half as much energy finding terrorists as it has spent fighting Congress, we should feel very safe.

The spooks, taking a break from the mundane work of protecting the nation, have lately been turning their spycraft against the lawmakers who are supposed to be overseeing them. The not-so-secret mission: To block the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on tortu—, uh, enhanced interrogation methods.

First, CIA officials broke into computers that were being used by the committee — a clear constitutional violation — and then, using false information, tried to have committee staffers prosecuted. CIA Director John Brennan apologized for spying on the senators’ activities. President Obama, in a news conference on Aug. 1, said the Intelligence Committee was free to issue its report, “the declassified version that will be released at the pleasure of the Senate committee.”

But Brennan’s apology must not have been sincere, and the committee, to its displeasure, learned that the CIA has “redacted” — read: censored — key elements of the report. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the committee, said she couldn’t release the report because the CIA had attempted to redact key details that “eliminate or obscure key facts that support the report’s findings and conclusions.”

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence who has already admitted to giving false information to Congress about the National Security Agency’s activities, defended his efforts to undermine the torture report. “More than 85 percent of the committee report has been declassified,” he said in a statement, “and half of the redactions are in footnotes.”

Clapper’s word-count defense can be summarized in one word: dubious. The “footnotes” are not mere afterthoughts in such reports; that’s where the evidence is. And the administration’s claim that it has struck only 15 percent of the words is about as compelling as claiming the CIA spied on only 15 percent of senators.

“While Director Clapper may be technically correct that the document has been 85 percent declassified,” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the Intelligence Committee, said in a statement, “it is also true that strategically placed redactions can make a narrative incomprehensible.”

Strategically placed redactions? Well, yes, that could cause [redacted], particularly if it were done to [redacted]. Imagine Clapper trying to do his job while operating under the 85 percent rule:

“Director, the prisoner is not [redacted.] Do we have your permission to [redacted]?”

Or: “Sir, the Russians say they will [redacted] Snowden if we agree to [redacted] on [redacted]. What should we do?”

Imagine Clapper’s anxiety when he gets a call saying the president wants to see him in the Oval Office at [redacted] to get his briefing on [redacted], or when he is asked to authorize a drone strike right in the capital of [redacted].

It would be enough to make Clapper [redacted] himself.

To accept the CIA’s claim that the torture report must be censored is to embrace the notion that the people’s representatives — Democrats and Republicans alike — cannot be trusted to keep truly sensitive information (rather than embarrassing disclosures) out of the public domain.

“The Senate Intelligence Committee is not the ACLU, and if they’re saying more can and should be released, one suspects that is likely to be true,” says Steven Aftergood, who monitors government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists.

Obama’s overall failure to deliver on his promise to create a more transparent government has been one of the greatest disappointments of his leadership. Aftergood says the administration hasn’t improved on the record of the highly secretive George W. Bush administration. And in some cases, such as leak investigations, it has been worse: The administration is now deciding whether to seek to jail a New York Times journalist, James Risen, for protecting his sources in a national security case.

Recently, the House Intelligence Committee asked the intelligence agencies to declassify the committee’s report on the 2012 Benghazi attacks. The committee’s top Democrat says the report finds “no intelligence failure,” so maybe Clapper and his colleagues will use their redaction pens more lightly. But they have shown little inclination to relax their reflexive secrecy, even if it’s in their interest.

The intelligence agencies’ slow-walking of the torture report, and the clashes with lawmakers, have only drawn more attention to the matter and made them look worse. Why would the intelligence community handle this with so little intelligence? And why would the president let them get away with this?

There can be only one explanation, and that is [redacted].

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

toon
Editorial cartoons for Thursday, April 15

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

FILE - In this undated photo, provided by NY Governor's Press Office on Saturday March 27, 2021, is the new "Excelsior Pass" app, a digital pass that people can download to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. Vaccine passports being developed to verify COVID-19 immunization status and allow inoculated people to more freely travel, shop and dine have become the latest flash point in America’s perpetual political wars, with Republicans portraying them as a heavy-handed intrusion into personal freedom and private health choices. (NY Governor's Press Office via AP, File)
Editorial: Vaccine passports can nudge more toward immunity

Used to persuade rather than exclude, the passports could increase access to businesses and venues.

Comment: Low-carbon fuel standard is too costly and won’t work

Similar standards in California and Oregon have increased fuel prices but haven’t reduced emissions.

Comment: Post-covid, work-from-home advocates face challenges

Employers may seem open to hybrid arrangements, but those may prove to be the worst of both worlds.

Comment: Pop culture’s role in confronting racism

The introduction of a Black character in ‘Peanuts’ in 1968 sparked inclusion in other popular media.

Harrop: QAnon beliefs should bar followers from teaching

It’s not about politics; it’s about whether someone so divorced from reality should teach children.

toon
Editorial cartoons for Wednesday, April 14

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Eric Brossard displays his commemorative Drug Court graduation coin that reads, "I came with hope, worked and learned. I have a new life. A life that I've earned." (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Court ruling requires focus on addiction treatment

A court decision allows for a more effective and affordable solution to substance use disorder.

An architectual illustration shows the proposed Learning Resource Center at Everett Community College. The centerAn architectual illustration shows the proposed Learning Resource Center at Everett Community College. The center would replace the college's Libary Media Center, built in 1988. The Senate capital budget proposal allocates $48 million for its construction, while the House budget includes no funding for it. (Courtesy of Everett Community College) would replace the college's
Editorial: Capital budget a bipartisan boost for communities

House and Senate proposals are substantial and needed, but final talks should secure an EvCC project.

Most Read