Though it’s old news already, the release today of about 700 pages of highly classified documents from the heyday of the intelligence community’s abuses, abuses that led to the creation of the two permanent intelligence committees and a series of laws designed to check excesses, is well worth following, if for nothing else than sheer entertainment value.It’s got everything: sex (bugging an adulterous love nest), drugs (experimentation on volunteers from the Armed Forces) and rock and roll (John Lennon is featured as a potential saboteur of the Republican National Convention).On a serious note, however, one has to ask: why now? In a delightfully sinister quote, General Hayden—the current CIA director— claimed the release of the so-called CIA “family jewels” (documents detailing assassination attempts, covert paramilitary operations and all manner of spygaming) was to fulfill a “social contract” with the American public and to detail the “complexities” of intelligence gathering.Of course, the automatic reaction is that the release is a ploy to distract scrutiny from the Guantanamo Bay controversy and the ever-growing criticism of the CIA’s black site prisons, use of torture, and secret detentions. But I think it’s more than distraction.Look at what the CIA released. The operations discussed in these documents range far afield from the CIA’s central intelligence gathering function (no pun intended). Most actually deal with covert operations, which are currently a legal category onto themselves, divorced (by statute) from “traditional intelligence gathering.”In reality, the “family jewels” are less about traditional intelligence (real spy tradecraft), and more about trying to influence international affairs without leaving American fingerprints (which is actually the legal definition of “covert operations” in Title 50 of the US Code). These documents are not about the complexities of “intelligence,” technically speaking, they’re about the temptations and abuses of highly secretive activities, and the snowball effect that occurs when a secret government agency gets a taste of operating outside the law.No, these documents aren’t about showing the “complexities of intelligence” gathering, and they’re not just something to distract the opiated masses to give the embattled administration some breathing room. On the contrary, I guarantee that these historical excesses will be used by the current CIA and White House to justify their own abuses.In other words: look ma’, sure I stole a cookie, but my older brother stole a whole pie.Before we buy that argument, however, consider this distinction. The CIA back in the olden days liked to talk to mobsters about paramours and Castro assassinations. They liked to gather information on student radicals, in contravention of their charter. They messed around in Chile, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, the Congo, etc. That’s all bad. But it’s no worse than torture, secret detentions, black site prisons, and constant bureaucratic agitation to escape the bounds of applicable law.This is a distraction, sure, but it’s far more serious than a simple game of public relations three card monte.