Credit Major Garrett for catching the odd qualifiers on John Brennan’s response to accusations of snooping on a Senate investigation. Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein attacked the CIA for monitoring and snooping on staffers probing whether the agency misled the Bush administration on interrogations and black-site operations, blowing a brewing war between Langley and Capitol Hill into full view. Appearing at the Council on Foreign Relations, the CIA director responded by claiming that the facts would dispute that there had been monitoring, snooping, or hacking … in any huge amount, anyway:
[NBC News reporter ANDREA] MITCHELL: She says that there are potentially illegal and unconstitutional breaches by the CIA.
BRENNAN: Well, there are appropriate authorities right now both inside of CIA, as well as outside of CIA…
MITCHELL: The Justice Department.
BRENNAN: … are looking at what CIA officers, as well as SSCI staff members did. And I defer to them to determine whether or not there was any violation of law or principle, and I referred the matter myself to the CIA inspector general to make sure that he was able to look honestly and objectively at what CIA did there.
And, you know, when the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.
Garrett seized on Brennan’s framing of the denial:
CIA Director John Brennan denied credible allegations of spying on Congress—a federal crime—leveled by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein with a classic Washington evasion.
“We wouldn’t do that,” Brennan said during an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations. “That’s just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.”
As might be said in a deposition, the witness was unresponsive. Brennan wasn’t under oath, and this isn’t a full-scale legal inquiry, at least not yet. As any cop or lawyer knows, when someone says they wouldn’t do something, that doesn’t prove they didn’t. And saying something is unreasonable doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Brennan also added this: “When the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”
Note the modifier “tremendous.” What constitutes tremendous in terms of spying or monitoring or hacking? That’s an eye-of-the-beholder dodge of the central question at hand: Did the CIA intentionally invade the work computers of Senate Intelligence Committee staffers and remove documents relevant to the panel’s ongoing oversight investigation?
Put another way: Did the Obama administration, through zealous and possibly criminal tactics, seek to interfere with the oversight work of a bipartisan oversight committee chaired by Feinstein, a loyal California Democrat? Is Feinstein alone? Hardly. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid backs her “unequivocally.” So do rank-and-file Democrats.
We are talking crimes and prerogatives here, people. And it’s Democrats, not Republicans, who allege that laws may have been violated and prerogatives bulldozed.
Eli Lake also picked up on that nuance, but sees a different problem for Brennan. His statement set an expectation — however qualified it might be — that Feinstein will be proven wrong. If not, Brennan has basically dared Obama to do something that Obama has never done, which is to hold a high-level political appointee accountable for a scandal. And that might lead to even bigger problems for Obama
“If I did something wrong,” Brennan said. “I will go to the president and I will explain to him what I did and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.”
In Washington, where politicians have mastered the art of the mea culpa, those words would not normally warrant much attention. But for John Brennan, a man entrusted with secrets on everything from Obama’s drone war to his cyber espionage campaign against Iran, Brennan’s talk amounts to a kind of dare. …
It’s possible the investigations will vindicate Brennan. But Feinstein has a very different view of the facts and that could put pressure on Obama to let one of his closest advisers go. If Obama decides to do that, though, he could face the same kind of political problems that many observers believe besieged the George W. Bush administration after the invasion of Iraq. During the 2004 election, many of Bush’s closest allies suspected the CIA was orchestrating a leak campaign to discredit the war in Iraq in protest of what they saw as a politicized decision-making process to invade.
“Any agency can undermine just about anyone,” said Hoekstra, who served as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence during the first two years of Bush’s second term. “We saw that under the Bush administration, there were leaks coming out all over the place. You never knew where they were coming from and some of them were coming from the intelligence community and the objective was to embarrass President Bush.”
If the CIA did any snooping on Congress, whether that consisted of monitoring, hacking, or spying, then it’s a huge problem. Just like one can’t get a little bit pregnant, the CIA can’t claim to just have infringed a little bit on the separation of powers and the legitimacy of Congressional oversight into its activities. Feinstein should call Brennan to testify under oath as to the meaning of the word “tremendous,” and make his claims under penalty of perjury.