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Happy Anniversary, CIA! 12 Years of Lawlessness!

Christopher Anders,
Director of Policy and Government Affairs, Democracy and Technology,
American Civil Liberties Union
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August 6, 2014

Wow. Twelve years. The time has flown by. Seems like just yesterday that the Justice Department sent over its torture memos to then-CIA General Counsel John Rizzo, ramping up a CIA torture program that horribly abused more than a hundred men, killing a few of them. No one at the CIA was ever even charged with a crime. Some agents, in fact, got job promotions.

Those initial August 2002 memos were soon followed by a flood of legal opinions designed to prop up a clearly criminal torture program.

Old history? Hardly. The torture memos were just the start of a string of scandals that has resulted in no meaningful reform of or accountability for an agency that seems to be getting a blank check – to this day. The CIA, with the backing or orders of the White House, ran a worldwide network of secret prisons where it tortured men with barbaric techniques (some inspired by the TV show 24); kidnapped people from European streets; and then reportedly lied to Congress, the White House, and the Justice Department about it.

The lawlessness continued, even after horrified Americans found out what was happening. More legal memos were written to try to keep torturing, even after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) convinced Congress to pass yet another law to stop it. Top CIA officials ordered evidence — videotapes of men being subjected to simulated drowning — destroyed before investigators could view them.

On his second day in office, President Obama ordered the CIA to close its secret prisons, banned the CIA from all but short-term transitory detention, and put the CIA under the same interrogation rules that apply to the military.

But did that stop the lawlessness? Not really. With President Obama promising to “look forwards, not backwards,” CIA officials, and all Bush officials, dodged any criminal indictments, were protected from lawsuits by courts that deferred to CIA secrecy and immunity claims, and did whatever they could to get in the way of Senate investigators.

The lawlessness remains because the Constitution’s system of checks and balances is broken. The president, Congress, and the courts seem unwilling or unable to hold the CIA accountable.

Incredibly, more than 200 CIA employees who were involved in the torture program are today still employed at the CIA. The acting general counsel of the CIA until this past March was the very same person who had been one of the CIA’s top torture lawyers a decade ago. And in something more reminiscent of organized crime than good government, current CIA leadership met this spring with Bush-era CIA leadership to brainstorm how to undermine a Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s use of torture.

The lawlessness seems to be coming to a head this year. The CIA’s internal watchdog, its inspector general, just gave a report to the Senate Intelligence Committee that found that the CIA spied on the computers used by the Senate committee to investigate the CIA torture program. CIA officials created a false online identity, tracked the Senate staff’s queries, and manipulated the Senate staff’s files. The CIA then falsely accused the Senate staff of wrongdoing by filing a criminal referral with the Justice Department that was based on false information.

When the CIA spying was initially discovered last winter, CIA Director John Brennan publicly blasted anyone criticizing the CIA. But the CIA inspector general is now essentially saying that CIA officials spied on Congress and then lied about it.

How can the Constitution’s system of checks and balances work if the CIA spies on the computers used by the very staffers carrying out the Senate’s constitutional duty of overseeing the executive branch? An uncontrolled – and seemingly uncontrollable – CIA threatens the very foundations of our Constitution.

Twelve years of CIA lawlessness should be enough. It is long past time for Congress and the president to forever ban the CIA from holding anyone in its custody and running a secret prison. But President Obama must also stand up to the CIA and to John Brennan himself. Congress must make the Senate CIA torture report public and start serving as an effective check on the CIA.

No more anniversaries for lawlessness.

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