Dysfunction in Congress can damage the country in many ways, but none may be as serious as a failure to fill its role in the system of checks and balances set up by the U.S. Constitution.
When Congress heads back to Washington after the August recess, members of the Senate face a serious test on whether they can assert control over the U.S. intelligence agencies.
Late in July, just before senators and representatives headed for home, Central Intelligence Director John Brennan admitted that CIA staffers had broken into the Senate’s computers.
Remember, this is the same official who scoffed in March at those claims. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Brennan said then. “I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s just beyond the scope of reason.”
Now we know that those actions that seemed so unthinkable actually occurred.
Why is this issue important?
Because it’s the responsibility of the Senate to oversee the nation’s intelligence agencies.
If the CIA can undermine or sabotage the Senate’s oversight, Americans have reason to worry that the country’s intelligence agencies are running amok.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. intelligence operations metastasized.
In a 2010 series, the Washington Post documented some of the growth. “In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings, about 17 million square feet of space.”
Not only has the size of intelligence operations grown, advances in technology have made their surveillance activities more pervasive and powerful. When Edward Snowden first blew the whistle on how the National Security Agency was spying on Americans, his revelations seemed incredible to some. But it was not long before even the giant technology companies admitted they were surprised by the extent of surveillance and joined the call for reform.
Now it turns out that the CIA is spying on its boss: the U.S. Senate. The CIA apparently was worried about a report the committee is working on about interrogation tactics used by the military.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein told the New York Times earlier this month that how the hacking of Senate computers is resolved will show whether the committee can be effective or “whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.”
Feinstein is right.
This controversy should not be brushed aside as another partisan squabble. It’s about the basics of the American system of government. Senate oversight is the only way the public can get America’s spies under control.
— Lincoln Journal Star (Nebraska)