The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The CIA just won’t hold itself accountable

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Widespread bipartisan outrage is so unusual in Washington these days that when it does happen, everyone should take notice. One such rare instance in 2014 was when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) accused the CIA of searching computers used by Senate investigators compiling the since-released report on the agency’s torture program. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that the agency’s actions were “dangerous to a democracy” and “heads should roll, people should go to jail, if it’s true.” After CIA director John Brennan confirmed the allegations and apologized, two Democrats called for his resignation and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said “This is very, very serious, and I will tell you, as a member of the committee, someone who has great respect for the CIA, I am extremely disappointed in the actions of the agents of the CIA who carried out this breach of the committee’s computers.” 

The reason they were united is best expressed by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine): “We’re the only people watching these organizations, and if we can’t rely on the information that we’re given as being accurate, then it makes a mockery of the entire oversight function.” The CIA’s improper searches of the computers (which occurred three separate times) was an extraordinary violation of the separation of powers, which should have led to serious consequences for the five employees behind it (two CIA attorneys and three “IT staff members”).

One would have hoped that the bipartisan outrage and the sanctity of separation of powers would lead to the CIA holding these five accountable, if only to send a message to other employees who might try more flagrant abuses. But now we learn that the agency’s internal panel has decided none of them should face discipline. According to The Post’s Greg Miller, “the CIA review group found that the agency employees’ actions were ‘reasonable in light of their responsibilities to manage an unprecedented computer system’ set up for Senate aides.” The panel, led by former senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), “described the [inappropriately accessed] material as ‘five e-mails, none of any consequence or involving discussions of substantive matters’ and said the decision to access them warranted no punishment.”

But how often or how much the CIA accessed, or why it did it, should pale in comparison to the two principles at stake. First, as senators on both sides agree, even a little access taints Congress’s oversight function.

And second, that the CIA employees’ violations “did not reflect malfeasance, bad faith, or the intention to gain improper access,” as Bayh argued in a statement, does not matter. We should expect better of our spy agencies’ employees, and when there are mistakes, even if they are honest ones, there should be consequences. That the agency cannot even hold itself accountable on such basic issues bodes poorly for any future attempts at oversight and reform.