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Milbank: Our spies are spying on Congress

First Published Aug 10 2014 01:36 pm • Last Updated Aug 10 2014 01:36 pm

WASHINGTON • If the CIA spends half as much energy finding terrorists as it has spent fighting Congress, we should feel very safe.

The spooks, taking a break from the mundane work of protecting the nation, have lately been turning their spycraft against the lawmakers who are supposed to be overseeing them. The not-so-secret mission: To block the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on tortu--, uh, enhanced interrogation methods.

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First, CIA officials broke into computers that were being used by the committee -- a clear constitutional violation -- and then, using false information, tried to have committee staffers prosecuted. CIA Director John Brennan apologized for spying on the senators’ activities. President Obama, in a news conference on Aug. 1, said the Intelligence Committee was free to issue its report, "the declassified version that will be released at the pleasure of the Senate committee."

But Brennan’s apology must not have been sincere, and the committee, to its displeasure, learned that the CIA has "redacted" -- read: censored -- key elements of the report. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the committee, said she couldn’t release the report because the CIA had attempted to redact key details that "eliminate or obscure key facts that support the report’s findings and conclusions."

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence who has already admitted to giving false information to Congress about the National Security Agency’s activities, defended his efforts to undermine the torture report. "More than 85 percent of the committee report has been declassified," he said in a statement, "and half of the redactions are in footnotes."

Clapper’s word-count defense can be summarized in one word: dubious. The "footnotes" are not mere afterthoughts in such reports; that’s where the evidence is. And the administration’s claim that it has struck only 15 percent of the words is about as compelling as claiming the CIA spied on only 15 percent of senators.

"While Director Clapper may be technically correct that the document has been 85 percent declassified," Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the Intelligence Committee, said in a statement, "it is also true that strategically placed redactions can make a narrative incomprehensible."

Strategically placed redactions? Well, yes, that could cause [redacted], particularly if it were done to [redacted]. Imagine Clapper trying to do his job while operating under the 85 percent rule:

"Director, the prisoner is not [redacted.] Do we have your permission to [redacted]?"

Or: "Sir, the Russians say they will [redacted] Snowden if we agree to [redacted] on [redacted]. What should we do?"

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Imagine Clapper’s anxiety when he gets a call saying the president wants to see him in the Oval Office at [redacted] to get his briefing on [redacted], or when he is asked to authorize a drone strike right in the capital of [redacted].

It would be enough to make Clapper [redacted] himself.

To accept the CIA’s claim that the torture report must be censored is to embrace the notion that the people’s representatives -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- cannot be trusted to keep truly sensitive information (rather than embarrassing disclosures) out of the public domain.

"The Senate Intelligence Committee is not the ACLU, and if they’re saying more can and should be released, one suspects that is likely to be true," says Steven Aftergood, who monitors government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists.

Obama’s overall failure to deliver on his promise to create a more transparent government has been one of the greatest disappointments of his leadership. Aftergood says the administration hasn’t improved on the record of the highly secretive George W. Bush administration. And in some cases, such as leak investigations, it has been worse: The administration is now deciding whether to seek to jail a New York Times journalist, James Risen, for protecting his sources in a national security case.

Recently, the House Intelligence Committee asked the intelligence agencies to declassify the committee’s report on the 2012 Benghazi attacks. The committee’s top Democrat says the report finds "no intelligence failure," so maybe Clapper and his colleagues will use their redaction pens more lightly. But they have shown little inclination to relax their reflexive secrecy, even if it’s in their interest.

The intelligence agencies’ slow-walking of the torture report, and the clashes with lawmakers, have only drawn more attention to the matter and made them look worse. Why would the intelligence community handle this with so little intelligence? And why would the president let them get away with this?

There can be only one explanation, and that is [redacted].

Twitter: @Milbank

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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