Though at least one U.S. Senator, Mark Udall of Colorado, has publicly called for the resignation of CIA chief John Brennan after his admission became public on Thursday that the agency spied on the Intelligence Committee's investigate panel looking at torture during the Bush years, more aggressive critics are saying that President Obama should take the matter into his own hands by firing the man he appointed to the position.
Though he denied the charges heatedly and repeatedly when they first surfaced earlier this year, Brennan admitted this week that agency employees had, in fact, spied on the panel by "improperly accessing" computers used to catalog their investigation. In his statement that followed the revelations, Sen. Udall declared, "I have no choice but to call for the resignation of CIA Director John Brennan."
"The CIA unconstitutionally spied on Congress by hacking into Senate Intelligence Committee computers. This grave misconduct not only is illegal, but it violates the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of separation of powers. These offenses, along with other errors in judgment by some at the CIA, demonstrate a tremendous failure of leadership, and there must be consequences."
Other critics, however— making the assumption that Brennan would not willingly step aside—are calling for Obama to step in and take action.
Writing at The Guardian, Trevor Timm, who heads the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports and defends journalism dedicated to transparency and accountability, was among those saying Brennan should be fired from his post.
"This is not the type of guy who is going to resign because of some report he doesn’t like; this is the type of spy who apologizes even though he’s not sorry, who lies because he doesn’t like to tell the truth," wrote Timm. "The National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency have been allowed to lie brazenly to Congress, the courts and the public for far too long. It’s far past time for the Obama administration to bring a little accountability to the intelligence community. It’s time for Barack Obama to fire John Brennan."
At the Washingont Post, digital opinions editor James Downie argues that Obama has no choice but to fire Brennan if wants to "restore in U.S. intelligence agencies some semblance of responsibility to the Constitution and the public," pointing out that Brennan is not the only high-level intelligence official to be caught lying directly to Congress during his tenure.
An apology and an internal review board might suffice if this were Brennan or intelligence leaders’ first offense, but the track record is far from spotless. In 2011, Brennan claimed that dozens of U.S. drone strikes on overseas targets had not killed a single civilian. This remarkable success rate was not only disputed at the time by news reports — even supporters of the drone program called it “absurd” — but as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the New York Times both reported later, President Obama received reports from the very beginning of his presidency about drone strikes killing numerous civilians. As Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser at the time, Brennan would have received these reports as well, so either Brennan knew that his claim was a lie, or he is secretly deaf. Similarly, Brennan denied snooping on Senate computers six weeks after Feinstein first made the accusation to the CIA in private, which means either that he was lying, or he had ignored a serious charge against his agency for six weeks, then spouted off about it without any real knowledge — hardly the behavior expected of an agency director.
And last year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied under oath to Congress when he told Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and the Senate Intelligence Committee that the National Security Agency did not collect any kind of data on millions of Americans, a claim later disproved by documents leaked by former NSA employee Edward Snowden. Despite Clapper receiving criticism from both sides of the aisle, the damage to Clapper’s and the White House’s credibility on intelligence and civil liberties issues and, well, the fact that lying to Congress is a crime (though one that’s difficult to prosecute), Obama has not disciplined Clapper in any way.
Dan Froomkin—now a columnist for The Intercept but who spent his previous years at the Washington Post and then the Huffington Post—also urged Obama to get rid of Brennan, saying that though the crimes of torture themselves should not be over-shadowed, Brennan's behavior at the CIA represents the worst aspects of the culture of secrecy and dishonesty that has beset the U.S. government in profoundly dangerous ways in the post-9/11 era. He writes:
Lying, of course, has always been a problem in Washington. But especially after the 9/11 terror attacks, the Bush-Cheney regime took lying to new post-Nixon heights. Maybe even pre-Nixon.
When I sat down to write my last “White House Watch” column for the Washington Post, what struck me most about the Bush years were the lies. The most consequential, of course, were the lies about the war. The most telling were the lies to cover up the lies about the war. And the most grotesque were the lies about torture.
The other thing is that there were no consequences. No one got in trouble for lying. The only semi-casualty was Scooter Libby, briefly convicted of lying while obstructing the investigation into vice president Cheney’s lies.
Figuring out how to right the constitutional imbalance between the branches of government, as exposed by this CIA assault on Congress, is very complicated.
But doing something about lying isn’t. You need to hold people accountable for it.
History will assuredly record that President Obama lied about a number of things, particularly as he carried water for the intelligence community and the military. But he’s no Cheney.
So if you’re the president, you fire everyone who lies. Starting with John Brennan.