Returning to a theme that punctuated his career in national politics, former Vice President Walter Mondale faulted President Obama for not doing more to hold the Central Intelligence Agency accountable for recent excesses, including interfering with congressional oversight of intelligence activities.
Mondale made the comments in an interview Sunday as he prepared for a day-long celebration in Washington of his legacy, including his service in 1975 on a special Senate panel investigating abuses by the CIA, the National Security Agency and the FBI.
Mondale will be joined Tuesday evening by former President Jimmy Carter, who is being treated for brain cancer and is flying in for a dinner honoring Mondale and programs established in his name at the University of Minnesota.
At a series of daytime sessions at George Washington University Tuesday, Mondale is scheduled to share panels on the vice presidency with Vice President Joe Biden and another with Intelligence Committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Pat Leahy (D-Vt.)
In the half-hour interview, Mondale expressed surprise at Obama’s response to reported CIA abuses and called for punishment of agency employees who were involved with penetrating computers used by Senate staffers reviewing CIA interrogation methods.
He also expressed support for the proposed Iran nuclear deal championed by Obama, noting that his view is shared by Carter, whose single presidential term was upended by the Iranian hostage crisis.
Obama has called CIA interrogation methods “torture” and ordered the program dismantled. But he has also been reluctant to release the Senate Intelligence Committee’s full report on torture.
“I’m surprised by the president, who was a distinguished scholar, a constitutional lawyer, president of the Harvard Law Review,” Mondale said. “He knows what these issues are, but he’s not been a strong advocate, to put it mildly, toward requiring accountability. I agree with most of the things the president does; I do not agree with this.”
In 1975, Mondale was named to the Church Committee, which was set up after Watergate to explore abuses of power at the CIA and FBI, The panel was named for its chairman, former Idaho Sen. Frank Church. Separately Tuesday, former Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) will host a half-day seminar reviewing progress and setbacks in the congressional oversight of intelligence activities since the Church committee released its findings.
Mondale mused that Feinstein has had a much harder time than he did four decades ago trying to extract answers from the intelligence community. Gerald Ford’s Republican White House was committed to helping the Church Committee, Mondale said, contrasting the approach with that of the Obama White House, which often appears to be working to protect the agency from oversight by Senate Democrats.
“What Dianne Feinstein confronted here was a very active agency that was in control of itself and did not want to comply with their legitimate requests, and I believe with the support of the president, they did so. That’s pretty formidable,” he said. “When we did the Church Committee report, we were lucky because J. Edgar Hoover was no longer around (as FBI director). The newspapers had already reported a lot of these abuses. And there were many people in the CIA, including its director, who felt the agency was out of control and needed the oversight the Congress was providing. And Edward Levi, (Gerald) Ford’s attorney general, wanted to help. His leadership over there was indispensable to our success.”
Mondale praised the 528-page executive summary released last December by the Intelligence Committee after intense negotiations between the Senate and the White House, which followed a five-year investigation into the CIA’s secret interrogations of terrorism suspects. The former vice president, who served 12 years in the Senate, noted that what got released to the public was heavily redacted. The bulk of the 6,900 pages remains classified.
He wants Obama to push for the release of the full report to prevent mistakes from being repeated. “This is the public’s business,” he said. “It’s their right to know this. It’s been several years since these events have taken place.”
Mondale also expressed concern that Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who became chairman of the committee with the GOP takeover of the Senate, has taken steps to prevent the full report from being released.
“It’s pretty grim right now … There’s a general sense of let-down after Sen. Feinstein lost her committee,” said Mondale, who seriously considered picking then-San Francisco Mayor Feinstein as his running-mate in the 1984 presidential election before going with Geraldine Ferraro instead.
It came out during the more recent investigation that CIA employees had hacked into the computer network used by Senate staffers. Initially, CIA director John Brennan denied wrongdoing and agency staff even tried to get the Justice Department to pursue criminal charges against the congressional investigators. Later, Brennan apologized for the search of the computers.
A CIA “Accountability Board,” led by ex-Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh (D), concluded earlier this year that “no discipline was warranted for the five CIA personnel under review because they acted reasonably.”
That does not satisfy Mondale. “There should be discipline, absolutely,” he said. “This was pretty abusive. They hacked into the files of an independent committee of the U.S. Congress. There should be some punishment and some kind of discipline imposed on those responsible.”
Mondale, who has endorsed Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, was noticeably reluctant to discuss presidential politics, including Biden’s possible candidacy. Instead, he lamented the mood in Washington.
“The polarization, the paralysis, of the federal government is one of the saddest things I’ve seen,” he said. “We’re hurting ourselves. Our adversaries are gaining joy over it. I hope somehow we can find a way to restore civility. We’re not there yet, not by a million miles, but we sure need it.”