The Associated Press

The Lurking Intelligence Scandal

Did the CIA lie to Congress?

The Associated Press

Sen. Feinstein claims the CIA spied on Senate computers.

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Much has been written about “enhanced interrogation,” a CIA program put into effect soon after 9/11. It’s the program that authorized waterboarding of suspected terrorists and was argued by some to amount to torture. And, because it was so controversial, several congressional leaders distanced themselves from it, alleging that they didn’t know about it or that they weren’t told about it; however, the whole matter has been overtaken by the Edward Snowden revelations and the NSA’s “Section 215" program.

Now there’s a new wrinkle to the enhanced interrogation matter: In a story broken by the New York Times, we learn of an enlarging spat between the CIA and the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence which has been investigating the enhanced interrogation matter for the past several years and – we are told – has prepared a several thousand page report on it.

It seems that 1) the intelligence committee staffers may have gotten access to documents they weren’t authorized to have, and that 2) the CIA may have been snooping on the Senate staffers as they worked on their investigation at an offsite location. And, these various allegations have been turned over to the Justice Department for investigation and possible action. The extensive Senate investigation itself, we are told, will accuse the CIA of misrepresenting the enhanced interrogation program to both Bush and Obama administration officials and also misrepresenting the program to the two intelligence committees.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

It’s probably not the biggest mess that the intelligence community has gotten itself into – Watergate, Iran-Contra and Snowden top it, for sure. But it may be the meanest one, with lots of finger-pointing, denials, lawyering up, various investigations, etc., etc., before it’s over – and it may never be over, insofar as the damaged relationships between the various parties involved are concerned. And, as is so typical of these kinds of disputes, there will be major fallout during the various investigations, with past and present officials accused of cover-ups and false statements – and some actual criminal prosecutions are possible. Firings, reorganizations, books, TV talk show blabber and various lawsuits are also par for the course for these things – and maybe even a TV series!

So, how could all this happen? More accurately, how and why was there the opportunity for so much deception and distortion of the truth?

Answer? It was way too easy!

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

While the Senate investigation will be dispositive of many of the details, here is an examination of the steps in the process to approve the enhanced interrogation program that would or could have been perverted to render the program either illegal or at least just very bad policy.

Initial articulation of the program: This could have occurred as a result of a number of different influences, or combinations thereof: Within the CIA, possibly as a result of discussions with foreign intelligence services, or possibly as a response to a high level internal political request, such as a question like: “What are the limits of our ability to compel or coerce information from a foreign terror suspect who is in our physical custody overseas?” Good question, I suppose.

And, it would have started the ball rolling in the CIA, and as part of this process, there would have been a more detailed articulation of the proposed interrogation program itself, various internal committee reviews, discussions and perhaps a series of internal opinions from the CIA general counsel’s office.

Somewhere in this process, there would have been overtures to the Department of Justice and requests for opinions. At Justice, CIA would have probably insisted on review and approval of the proposed program by the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel – such opinion would then be the official position of the Department of Justice.

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Interagency review and presidential approval: This would have been required depending on how the enhanced interrogation program was categorized; for example, if it were part of a covert action, there are rules and procedures issued by the president to govern how the proposal would be evaluated. And, if the program were part of a covert action, it would have been approved, in writing, by the president, and reported to both intelligence committees, either en masse or limited to the committee and House leaderships, depending on the president’s assessment of the sensitivity of the matter.

Even if the program were not considered a covert action, both the CIA and the DOJ would have no doubt insisted that the program be approved – expressly – by the president. Whether this was viewed as bureaucratic “CYA” or not – it would simply have been prudent under the circumstances, especially if the idea itself had originated with a high level political inquiry.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on Benghazi.]

Initial assessment: It is unlikely, whether one agrees or disagrees with the merits of the enhanced interrogation program, that there was fraud, collusion or misrepresentation concerning the program in these early stages. There were, as they say, way too many people in the tent for it to happen. And, from a bureaucratic standpoint, the procedural requirements to get such an intelligence program approved work to the advantage of the approval of a better program – so, and as for most intelligence programs, the procedure for approval itself becomes substance and to the advantage to all parties concerned.

However – and most important so far – perhaps no one opposed the program on the simple ground that, while maybe a good idea, there was no way such a program could be managed without the high probability, even inevitability, of misrepresentation and fraud in its execution. And, if we assume that someone had that reservation – and was overruled – such will hopefully come out in the Senate investigation.

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Execution of the program: Here is the rub, as they say. There is no doubt that in the execution of the program it may well have broken apart and demonstrated all the warts and scars that such a program carried with it from its inception. The temptation for misrepresentations in this stage of the program could have been overwhelming, and it seems entirely possible that the program could have been out of control from the start. This along with the probable destruction of records and false statements necessary to keep the program going, certainly as to the effectiveness of the methods employed.

So, is it possible that those in the chain of command and with oversight responsibilities were lied to about the execution of the enhanced interrogation program? Yes, and hopefully the Senate investigation will detail the nature and extent of it.