That trust is eroded by rogue operatives and regulatory incapacity. It is eroded by institutions that appear to have ignored the lessons of the past or place bureaucratic convenience above principle.
One instance of erosion is highlighted in a New York Times editorial this week, which reads in part -
In March, John Brennan, the C.I.A. director, was indignant when Senator Dianne Feinstein charged that the agency had broken into computers used by staff investigators from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which she leads. “As far as the allegations of C.I.A. hacking into Senate computers,” he said, “nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s just beyond the scope of reason.”Quite so ... how could presumably zealous and intelligent personnel be so stupid and act so illegally?
But reason seems to have little to do with the C.I.A.’s operations, as Mr. Brennan apparently discovered far too late. On Thursday, the Central Intelligence Agency admitted that it did, indeed, use a fake online identity to break into the Senate’s computers, where documents connected to a secret report on the agency’s detention and torture program were being stored. Mr. Brennan apologized privately to Ms. Feinstein and to Senator Saxby Chambliss, the vice chairman of the intelligence committee, and promised to set up an accountability board to determine who did the hacking and whether and how they should be punished.
The accountability and the apologies, however, will have to go much further. It’s not just two senators that the C.I.A. has offended by this shocking action. It is all of Congress and, by extension, the American public, which is paying for an intelligence agency that does not seem to understand the most fundamental concept of separation of powers. That concept means that Congress is supposed to oversee the intelligence community and rein in its excesses. It cannot possibly do so effectively if it is being spied on by the spy agency, which is supposed to be directing its efforts against foreign terrorists and other threats to national security.
The committee has been working since 2009 on a comprehensive history of the agency’s antiterror program during the George W. Bush administration, which involved illegal rendition to other countries, detention, and torture of suspects, all producing little useful intelligence. It has been frustrated at many points by stonewalling from the agency, which provided misleading information, hid important facts inside a blizzard of excess documents, and forced endless delays in the declassification process. The 6,300-page report still has not been made public, though parts of it may be released later this month, and it is expected to undercut the Bush administration’s claims that its actions were both legal and effective.
Late last year, the agency suspected that Senate investigators had obtained an internal C.I.A. review of the torture program. Senate officials said the review was in a database they were allowed to see, but realized that the C.I.A. had broken into a private Senate computer server and found the review. A summary of an agency inspector general’s report, released Thursday, said C.I.A. hackers even read the emails of Senate staffers. Then they exhibited a “lack of candor” to agency investigators.
In an extraordinary speech on the Senate floor in March, Ms. Feinstein accused the agency of having “undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function.” The institutional affront even drew Republican criticism. If the charge was true, said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, “heads should roll, and people should go to jail.”
One of those heads may need to be Mr. Brennan’s. If he knew about the break-in, then he blatantly lied. If he did not, then apparently he was unaware of the lawless culture that has festered within the C.I.A. since the moment it was encouraged by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to torture suspects and then lie about it. That recklessness extended to the point where agency officials thought nothing of burglarizing their own overseer.