Opinion: Obama’s first response to CIA spying shouldn’t be to praise its director

CIA director John O. Brennan
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Whether he knew about it long ago or not, CIA Director John O. Brennan doesn’t come off looking good now that an internal report has found that his agency had done the very thing that he has been insisting all along it could not possibly have done: spy on the Senate committee that was looking into the illegal detention and torture of terrorism suspects during the George W. Bush administration.

An investigation by the CIA’s inspector general found that CIA employees improperly hacked the computers of Senate staff and brought inaccurate allegations to the Justice Department that the Senate Intelligence Committee had obtained certain documents illegally. These are grievous violations committed by a federal agency against its own overseers, in order to further interfere with an investigation into its own previous wrongdoing. This comes after years of CIA delay and obfuscation in responding to the committee’s demands.

According to President Obama, Brennan deserves credit for initiating the internal report by the CIA’s inspector general. But if he knew about the wrongdoing by his department earlier, he has been dishonest with senators and the public; if he didn’t know about it, he comes off looking out of touch with what his employees are doing, and foolish for insisting vehemently that it never happened.


“As far as the allegations of CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth,” he said at a March event held by the Council on Foreign Relations. “I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s—that’s just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.”

Brennan apologized to the senators on the committee and vowed to set up an accountability commission. I’d just as soon that he didn’t waste the time and money. Given the enormity of the CIA’s transgressions and the months of denial that followed, the last group anyone is going to trust at this point is a panel set up by the CIA itself.

Brennan himself might not be guilty of any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, Obama needs to spend less time praising his CIA director and more time getting his arms around the actions it will take to get to the bottom of this and punish the people who need to be punished. That includes an independent investigation by the Justice Department with charges brought against anyone responsible for the spying on the Senate committee and for any subsequent attempts to deny it. The inspector general’s investigation reportedly found that some of the employees involved were less than honest in their responses.

The president should move quickly to make a redacted copy of the inspector general’s report available to the public. And as soon after as possible, the Senate Intelligence Committee should release its 6,300-page report on torture by the CIA, which has been in the works since 2009. Parts of the document are supposed to be released later this month.

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