After months of vehemently denying any wrongdoing, CIA chief John Brennan officially apologized to Senate
Foreign Relations Intelligence Committee leaders for breaking into its computers. The breach involved two lawyers and three technology specialists accessing a secure Senate database and searching staff members’ emails.
A person with knowledge of the issue insisted that the CIA personnel who improperly accessed the database “acted in good faith,” believing that they were empowered to do so because they believed there had been a security violation.“There was no malicious intent. They acted in good faith believing they had the legal standing to do so,” said the knowledgeable person, who asked not to be further identified because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly. “But it did not conform with the legal agreement reached with the Senate committee.”
There is a lot of storm and fury foaming around this evolving story—the Inspector General’s report that prompted Brennan’s apology will presumably be made public at some point—but taking a step back, two things become clear.First, the Obama administration’s handling of the intelligence services has been a succession of disasters: embarrassing revelations, clear abuses, vast failures of oversight and accountability. The President doesn’t appear to have the skills or the temperament for good administration of government business, and from the health care website fiasco to the serial train wrecks in the intelligence world, the consequences are on display. If a GOP president had fumbled the ball on this many important plays, there would be a firestorm in the press. But it needs to be said: President Obama has not been a competent manager of the nation’s intelligence efforts, and that is one of the most critical responsibilities that an American President has. Maintaining the proper balance between the intelligence gathering and other activities that are necessary to our safety in a perilous time and the civil liberties of the American people and relations with allied nations is one of those things that only the President under our system has the ability and the knowledge to do. For whatever reason, President Obama has repeatedly been found wanting here and American security, American liberty and America’s foreign relations are all significantly worse off because of it.
And second, while the balance in American politics certainly continues to shift away from the ‘collect it all’ mentality of the post 9/11 period—in part the natural result of a lack of confidence in the President’s ability to handle the power that has been delegated to the executive branch, and in part as a natural and healthy reaction to some of the excesses of recent years—it’s important that the pendulum not swing too far in the other direction. The dangers to American security are on the upswing, and despite the hollow assurances from Washington that the jihadis are “decimated” or on the run, the strength and capacity of these groups is growing. If the pendulum swings too far now, we risk significant attacks. And the effect of those could well be much worse for civil liberty.
We can hope that President Obama’s performance in this vital arena of presidential responsibility improves, but at this point the most important thing is for both parties to think hard about making sure that each nominates presidential candidates in 2016 who are ready, willing, and able to give this area the attention it deserves and to work with Congress to provide the U.S. with the right legal framework and the right kinds of oversight so that, as far as possible, the American people can be both safe and free.