In Describing CIA’s Attempted Intimidiation of Senate Intelligence Committee, Harry Reid Uses the Word “Unprecedented” Too

Back when Mark Udall first hinted about the CIA’s efforts to intimidate the Senate Intelligence Committee, he said CIA had taken “unprecedented action.”

That’s language Harry Reid repeats in a letter to John Brennan informing him that the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms will conduct a forensic review of the SSCI computers.

You are no doubt aware of the grave and unprecedented concerns with regards to constitutional separation of powers this action raises.

The language Reid uses in a letter to Eric Holder is even stronger.

As Majority Leader of the Senate, I have a responsibility to protect the independence and effectiveness of our institution. The CIA’s decision to access the resources and work product of the legislative branch without permission is absolutely indefensible, regardless of the context. This action has serious separation of powers implications. It is immaterial whether this action was taken in response to concerns about the Committee’s possession of a disputed document; this stands as a categorically different and more serious breach.

[snip]

In my capacity as the leader of the U.S. Senate, the CIA’s actions cause me great concern. The CIA has not only interfered with the lawful congressional oversight of its activities, but has also seemingly attempted to intimidate its overseers by subjecting them to criminal investigation. These developments strike at the heart of the constitutional separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. Left unchallenged, they call into question Congress’s ability to carry out its core constitutional duties and risk the possibility of an unaccountable Intelligence Community run amok. The CIA cannot be permitted to undermine Congress’s ability to serve as an effective check on executive power as our nation’s Founders intended.

For all the talk of interbranch conflict, however, the letter to Brennan includes hints of partisan conflict. He asks Brennan to keep his staffers away from Senate staffers except the Sergeant-at-Arms.

To ensure its [the Sergeant-at-Arms review] independence, I ask that you take whatever steps necessary to ensure that CIA personnel refrain from further interaction relating to this issue with Senate staff other than the Segeant-at-Arms staff conducting the examination while the examination is underway.

This suggests there has been such contact. And there’s no reason to believe anyone from the Democratic side would be working back channel with Brennan’s spooks.

As I noted last week, the Republicans — especially Richard Burr, who would become Intelligence Chair if Republicans retake the Senate — have been going after Mark Udall aggressively. In the interim we’ve seen fairly obvious hit jobs that use the CIA-SSCI dispute to focus on Udall’s electoral prospects in November.

So while I believe everything Reid says about separation of powers — while I believe he regards this as an unprecedented threat to separation of powers — this also reeks of an attempt to prevent the collaboration of Republicans and the CIA.

We’ll see whether it has the other probable goal: giving DOJ an easy way to back out of any entanglement in this dispute.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

7 replies
  1. john francis lee says:

    All talk and no action. The totalitarian steamroller rolls with its democratic stooges ‘tsk, tsk’-ing all the way to the bank.

    We have no representatives in ‘our’ government … they all belong to Israel and the TNCs.

  2. Nell says:

    While you’re probably correct about Reid’s no-contact request having to do with CIA contact with Republican committee members, I have no trouble imagining some of the Democrats on the committee playing footsie with the agency.

    Specifically, Mark Warner is not at all above suspicion in this regard. He has presidential ambitions, has made no commitment to declassifying the torture report, supported the disgraceful tighten-Iran-sanctions-despite-negotiations bill, and can usually be counted on to join with Republicans to do horrible things in public, much less in private.

      • lefty665 says:

        Warner’s only virtue is that he caucuses with the Dems, and that may be important this year. Hope the election is not so close that I have no choice but to vote for him.

  3. lefty665 says:

    Sure does seem like Reid is brushing Brennan back on conspiring with the Repubs to defeat Udall. (Nell has it @3, Warner is a snake, and Chambliss is his BFF).
    .
    The linked article indicates DOJ is doing nothing more than looking at the referrals. If Holder uses this as an excuse to duck the issues, it would leave Reid alone pursuing the original referral from the CIA IG of CIA wrongdoing. The CIA counter attack on the Senate staff might then disappear.
    .
    Surely O would not be happy if his “Priest” Brennan was so publicly dissed. OTOH, perhaps O is still “looking forward” and Brennan is so 2013.

  4. Stephen says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but as I understand it the “SSCI computers” referred to are in fact CIA computers loaned to the committee for the duration. To therefore give the CIA prior notice of a “forensic review” of those computers would be akin to the police giving someone accused of a crime prior notice that they are going to come around to that house to collect evidence of that crime! What are the odds that when the cops do show up they would find the place newly vacuumed and otherwise wiped clean of any incriminating evidence?

    The CIA has already twice shown no compunction in breaking in to those computers at least twice. What’s to stop them breaking in again to give them a spring cleaning?

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