When it was revealed in March of last year that the CIA improperly accessed computer networks belonging to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, then Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was furious.
“The CIA did not ask the committee or its staff if the committee had access to the internal review or how we obtained it,” the SSCI chair said in a speech on the Senate floor. “Instead, the CIA just went and searched the committee’s computer.”
Feinstein insisted that the CIA’s actions “violated the separation-of-powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution.” She was not alone in her condemnation of the intelligence agency.
“Heads should roll, people should go to jail,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) agreed. “[T]he legislative branch should declare war on the CIA, if it’s true.”
Of course, it was true. In July, CIA Director John Brennan, who previously called the charges against the agency he led “spurious,” confessed that his agency had acted improperly when they accessed Senate computers amid an investigation into the CIA’s Bush-era interrogation tactics.
He did not respond to Feinstein’s charge that the CIA accessed Senate computers at the direction of officials within the White House. When she made that accusation, the White House denied the claim. Today, a report alleges that the administration was aware of the CIA’s plan to conduct that invasion of SSCI computer networks before it occurred.
“Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan consulted the White House before directing agency personnel to sift through a walled-off computer drive being used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to construct its investigation of the agency’s torture program, according to a recently released report by the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General,” The Huffington Post reported on Thursday.
The report alleges that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough spoke with Brennan before the CIA director urged his employees to “use whatever means necessary” to identify what information the Senate had at their disposal regarding CIA tactics and how it acquired them.
Brennan’s consultation with McDonough also came before the CIA revealed the search to then-Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), whose staff was the target of the snooping.
The new information suggesting the White House was aware of — and did not stop — the CIA’s computer snooping is unlikely to improve the existing distrust between Senate committee members and the executive branch. Feinstein has said that the CIA’s computer search likely violated the constitutional separation of powers, an allegation the White House has declined to address directly.
The Oval Office’s prior knowledge of the controversial computer review will no doubt worsen the tensions that have erupted over the matter between the executive branch, its chief intelligence agency and the lawmakers tasked with their oversight.
The CIA’s defenders will contend that the networks accessed were on a “walled-off” hard drive on a computer network shared between the Senate and the CIA. That did not matter to the IG’s office, which accused the CIA operatives who accessed this network of wrongdoing. As for whether the CIA was directed to infiltrate SSCI networks at the behest of the White House, that remains unknown.
Whether the CIA was directed by the White House to violate SSCI property or the administration merely let this operation occur without intervening, it is a scandal. Just don’t expect the press to treat it like one. You can play “What if a Republican did it?” to your heart’s content, but that’s a fool’s errand. Conservatives know all too well that Republicans are held to higher standards of conduct than are their Democratic counterparts. That doesn’t make the double standard any less grating.