Sen. Mark Udall, D-Co., got it right yesterday. And he has been getting it right now for several years: Our intelligence community has violated the law, lied to Congress and the American people, and needs a serious makeover.
The CIA admission that it systematically spied on U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee staffers is a very big deal. As Udall put it, “The CIA unconstitutionally spied on Congress by hacking into Senate Intelligence Committee computers. This grave misconduct not only is illegal but it violates the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of separation of powers.”
Udall, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and others have been on a lonely crusade, quietly and responsibly, long before the NSA leaks of former contractor Edward Snowden, to rein in our intelligence community from spying on Americans, violating the Fourth Amendment and overstepping its bounds in the use of torture. They have consistently brought these issues up in closed committee hearings, lobbied the Obama administration to crack down on the activity and stood up for our constitutional rights.
We went through a similar period when I served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence headed by my old boss, Sen. Frank Church, D-Id. He was another westerner with integrity and courage who took on the powerful intelligence community for spying on Americans and engaging in assassination plots against foreign leaders. In the 1960s and 1970s, these agencies were also out of control and it was Congress that investigated them and came up with recommendations for serious oversight.
Sadly, the permanent congressional intelligence committees have been steamrolled, and especially during the Bush-Cheney era after 9/11, we were back to anything goes. Some would say, as Church did during the 1975-76 investigations, that the CIA (or the National Security Agency) was acting like a “rogue elephant,” but the message was sent from the top that the ends justify the means – do what you need to do and keep it secret.
From all appearances, this was former Vice President Dick Cheney’s war. The fact that former Secretary of State Colin Powell was initially kept in the dark about the torture in the secret prisons overseas is appalling. The fact that ambassadors to the countries where the “black sites” were set up were told not to inform their superiors at State is equally appalling. Saddest of all is that the Senate report which the CIA tried to undermine shows clearly that very little was gained by the use of torture and that this whole effort leaves a black mark on our country.
President Barack Obama made the decision early on to stop the program, but he also decided not to hold anyone accountable. Move on. Start fresh.
But now we are faced with a far different situation. It is time for presidential leadership to hold those in the CIA accountable. It is time to have a full house-cleaning of these agencies. It is time to recognize that we have a serious problem and that CIA Director John Brennan should go, as Udall was the first to suggest.
America needs a new director of the CIA, much in the Bill Colby mold, who did his best to reform the agency during the Church years. We need to initiate serious reform at the NSA as well.
It is also time for Obama to appoint an independent commission, much like Simpson-Bowles or the 9/11 Commission, to conduct a year-long review of our intelligence agencies. It needs a full staff, subpoena power, and members of Congress and distinguished Americans as members.
But most of all, those who violate the law, those CIA employees who hacked computers, should, at the very least, be fired. If superiors approved, they should be fired. And, most of all, their cases should be turned over to the Justice Department for possible prosecution.
It is long past time, as Udall indicated, for these actions to be dealt with, not swept under the rug. Americans’ freedoms and our reputation around the world demand it.