THE FIRST great object of a constitution, believed many of the Framers of the United States Constitution, is to enable the government to protect the people from external attack. Relative to the track records of other countries, the U.S. government’s success rate in that regard has been little short of astonishing. Through 225 years of threats from air, sea and land that have claimed hundreds of millions of lives in other countries, only a tiny handful of Americans have fallen victim to such attacks. So remarkable has been the government’s record that in the aftermath of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Americans were at a loss to recall the last major deadly attack within North America (in June 1876, when Sioux Indians wiped out Custer’s cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, killing more than 250). Few today are surprised to learn that lightning strikes have killed more Americans in the last twenty years than terrorist attacks.
Enabling the government to protect the people, however, is hardly the Constitution’s only purpose. Its second great object, the Framers believed, is to protect the people from the government. In this respect, the risk has risen considerably, for the greater the government’s capacity to protect against external threats, the greater the internal threat from the government itself. The Framers sought to meet that internal threat in part by setting up a system in which the three branches of the federal government, in competing for power, would produce an equilibrium that would guard against autocracy. But today that equilibrium has largely broken down. In July, the CIA acknowledged that it had spied on its Senate oversight committee and then lied about it. Given the emblematic significance of that event, a brief recap is in order.
In 2009, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence initiated a study of the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation activities. The CIA itself installed computers at a CIA facility for use by the committee staff in reviewing relevant documents. Some of the information on the computers was understood to consist of Senate documents and as such its availability was restricted to the committee staff. Nonetheless, five CIA officials—two attorneys and three information-technology staff members—surreptitiously accessed the documents. Following a related dispute with the committee staff, a CIA official accused that staff of crimes and filed a report with the Justice Department (which itself turned out to be based on inaccurate information).
In response, Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the committee, took to the Senate floor in March 2014 to say that “CIA personnel had conducted a ‘search’—that was [CIA director] John Brennan’s word—of the committee computers . . . of the ‘stand-alone’ and ‘walled-off’ committee network drive containing the committee’s own internal work product and communications.” In addition, she said, the agency had removed files from the committee’s computers, read its staff members’ e-mail messages and tried to intimidate them. Brennan, however, was quick to deny any wrongdoing by the agency. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.”
On July 31, four months later, the CIA inspector general issued a one-page statement confirming the spying. Brennan apologized to Feinstein and the committee’s vice chairman, Senator Saxby Chambliss (though not to the committee, the Senate, the president or the public). President Barack Obama proceeded to assert his “full confidence” in Brennan. The CIA announced that a panel would be set up to look into the matter, including, presumably, Brennan’s own role. Its members would be selected by Brennan. Though the Justice Department declined to investigate, major questions remained unanswered. Who ordered the search? How many intrusions occurred? Who within the CIA was given the purloined documents? Were they transmitted beyond the CIA? Who within the White House, if anyone, was informed of the CIA’s searches? When did the White House learn of them? And what action did it take then?
This was not the first time that Obama had failed to take disciplinary action in response to a senior intelligence official’s public falsehood. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the official Obama designated to oversee the declassification of the torture report, testified on behalf of the Obama administration before Feinstein’s committee on March 12, 2013. He was asked directly about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance by Senator Ron Wyden. “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Wyden asked. Clapper responded, “No, sir.” Wyden followed up: “It does not?” Clapper replied, “Not wittingly.” Following the Edward Snowden disclosures, Clapper admitted that his testimony was false. On June 9, 2013, he described his response to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell as the “least untruthful” statement he could give, suggesting that he had understood the question and deliberated on how it should be answered. (Unlike Clapper’s, Brennan’s statement was not made to a congressional committee and therefore was not subject to potential criminal penalties.)