CIA Director John Brennan may have dodged a bullet over his agency’s potentially unconstitutional snooping on the Senate, but critics insist his reprieve is only temporary.
Calls for the spy leader to resign after the CIA admitted that officials spied on the Senate have lost steam in recent weeks, since lawmakers left town for a five-week summer recess.
November’s midterm elections and crises from Syria to Ukraine could distract Congress from forcing the director to offer a public mea culpa in the short term.
But lawmakers and advocates pushing for a change at the top of the spy agency say that the issue has only been temporarily sidelined and won’t disappear for good.
"I absolutely stand by my call for CIA Director John Brennan to resign," Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), the first senator to call for him to step down earlier this summer, said in a statement to The Hill.
"The CIA's spying on its overseers in Congress and Brennan's failure to acknowledge any serious wrongdoing by the agency demonstrate a tremendous failure of leadership,” he added.
“There are still significant unanswered questions about the search of the Senate Intelligence Committee's computers — and Director Brennan and CIA leadership must be accountable to Congress on this matter," said Udall.
The CIA’s inspector general caused a shockwave on Capitol Hill a month ago, when it concluded that five agency officials had “improperly accessed” Senate Intelligence Committee computers to review staffers’ files and emails.
The snooping was conducted through a network to share files for the Senate committee’s report on the CIA’s history of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, such as waterboarding.
The admission set off a whirlwind of criticism for the agency and validated charges from committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who accused the CIA of unconstitutionally violating the separation of powers during a March floor speech.
It was especially bad news for Brennan, who had flatly denied Feinstein’s allegation as groundless and “beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we’d do.”
At least three senators — Udall along with Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — called for Brennan to resign after the incident, and many more put the spy chief on notice to offer a full explanation.
The CIA inspector general report came out on July 31, the day many lawmakers were already eyeing flights back home for the August recess. Empty desks on Capitol Hill prevented the incident from turning into a full-blown scandal and added to the radio silence about the issue in the press.
“The news on this dropped the day that everyone was going out of town,” said one Senate aide who asked not to be named. “That’s the whole reason it’s fallen off the radar.”
Once Congress comes back this week, the aide said, focus will return to the CIA’s spying.
“This is not something that’s going to go away,” said the aide.
Raha Wala, senior counsel at Human Rights First, said it was “frustrating” that the spying had been “overshadowed by other events and by congressional recess.” But Wala hoped lawmakers would put pressure on Brennan and the White House “to ensure that there’s real accountability for these kinds of actions and there are measures put in place to ensure that it never happens again.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee has not announced any future public hearings, however, which could make a showdown unlikely for now.
Feinstein has also praised Brennan's response to the spying and has not indicated that she wants to publicly rake him over the coals.
Additionally, political math in the precious few weeks between Labor Day and the midterm elections on Nov. 4 could further cloud the issue.
“What I’ve heard is people are looking at it as ‘How is this going to help me in the election?’” said James Lewis, director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If it doesn’t help, they won’t pursue it.”
“Topic No. 1 is who will control the Senate in January,” he added. For many congressional offices, “this is less important.”
There are, though, a number of opportunities for Brennan to feel the heat.
After the CIA’s inspector general confirmed the spying allegations, Brennan referred the matter to an internal accountability board chaired by former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who used to sit on the Senate intelligence panel. If his board finds any indication that Brennan knew about or condoned the officials’ infiltration of Senate computers, his job would almost certainly be in jeopardy.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is also preparing to release an unclassified version of its report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation methods, many of which President Obama has called torture. The redacted version of the 6,800-page document is expected to chronicle horrific abuse done in the name of fighting terrorism.
Brennan was not in charge of the agency when those policies were implemented under former President George W. Bush, but he will nonetheless have to walk a tightrope to both defend the institutional reputation of the CIA and atone for its history. Statements that show disrespect for Congress could put him back in the hot seat.
More broadly, tensions between the agency and its congressional overseers are riding high, and trust between the two institutions is almost nonexistant. Any intelligence failure or verbal slip-up could cause simmering outrage to spill over.
“Because of all of these other developments, I think that the atmosphere is kind of super-heated,” said John Prados, a CIA historian and project director at George Washington University’s National Security Archive.
“Any other thing that can serve as a spark to ignite the gasoline makes the very whole thing very hot indeed.”