As the White House scrambles to contain and calm tensions between the CIA and Senate Democrats over spying allegations — brought forcefully to the Senate floor by Sen. Dianne Feinstein this week — we have before us a stark view of the operations of the U.S. government today.
Hypocrisy, posturing, face-saving and obfuscation: This is contemporary politics writ large.
We see a posturing legislative branch stymied in its intended oversight role. We see the profound hypocrisy of Sen. Feinstein — a vociferous supporter of mass surveillance practices — calling foul when U.S. spycraft is turned on herself and her colleagues. We have CIA chief John Brennan taking a trenchant stance in the face of legitimate criticisms of yet more rogue spy agency activity. And we have an executive branch committed as ever to optics: Obama on Wednesday reminded the U.S. public of what a good job his administration had done at ending Bush-era torture and how he really would like to see transparency on the issue. Meanwhile, under Obama, as McClatchy has reported, the White House withheld “more than 9,000 top-secret documents sought by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence” for the lengthy report on CIA torture at the center at this current furor. And, of course, the contents of the 6,000-page report remain wholly hidden from public view.
Commentary on the current spat has been swift to decry the toxic environment. And indeed, while Brennan, Feinstein and Obama all scramble to come off well, no one party should be awarded “good guy” poll position. But no one in government — not even the shocked and appalled Senate Democrats — can seriously get away with the surprise and indignation on display this week. The Senate Intelligence Committee, the CIA and the White House have all played their part in upholding a secretive and overreaching national security state. Each party in this spat has at some point used the pretext of post-9/11 terror to enable extraordinary government surveillance. It was Feinstein, after all, who in defense of NSA spycraft jumped to scaremongering. “There is huge malevolence out there,” Feinstein said to justify the intelligence community’s unbounded hoarding complex.
We are a long way from Montesquieu’s dream of checks and balances on power through a tri-branched government. Instead, we have empty gestures toward government transparency while distrust and obfuscation reign. Feinstein, least of all, should be surprised that the halls of government are as infected by this troubling political status quo as the rest of us.