The White House press corps didn’t exactly cover itself in glory last Friday during a press briefing with President Obama. News that the CIA had admitted to and apologized for spying on Senate Intelligence Committee staffers had broken on Thursday, and there, standing at the lectern, was the one guy with the authority to hold the CIA director, John Brennan, accountable. Obama called on four reporters, none of whom asked about the country’s chief counterintelligence agency spying on employees of the body responsible for its oversight – he got three questions about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and one about executive orders.
It was only after Obama had answered his “last question” that some intrepid reporter finally yelled out “What about John Brennan?” at which point the president was finally impelled to weigh in on the matter. “I have full confidence in John Brennan,” Obama said. And while he allowed that “some very poor judgment was shown in terms of how that was handled,” he added: “Keep in mind, though, that John Brennan was the person who called for the [inspector general] report, and he’s already stood up a task force to make sure that lessons are learned and mistakes are resolved.”
The backdrop to all this, of course, is the Senate Intelligence Committee’s forthcoming report on the CIA’s post-9/11 use of torture to extract information from terrorism suspects. The report will say that the CIA’s tactics were as useless as they were brutal, and “yielded no information that would have been ‘otherwise unavailable’ to spy agencies through normal interrogations.” The CIA inappropriately accessed computers used by Senate staffers investigating this very matter.
I see all this and I can’t help but think of Eric Shinseki, the retired general who was until recently Barack Obama’s secretary of veterans affairs. When news broke that VA hospitals were delaying medical treatments for veterans and covering it up, Shinseki was apologetic and accepted blame for not identifying the problem sooner. “I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” he told a veterans’ group, adding: “I was too trusting.” He had backed an inspector general investigation into the delays, and vowed to “use all authority at our disposal and enforce accountability.”
But in the end, he got the ax. Shinseki offered his resignation to Obama, and the president accepted it. Here’s what the president said on May 30:
He has worked hard to investigate and identify the problems with access to care, but as he told me this morning, the VA needs new leadership to address them. He does not want to be a distraction, because his priority is to fix the problem and make sure our vets are getting the care that they need. That was Ric’s judgment on behalf of his fellow veterans. And I agree. We don’t have time for distractions; we need to fix the problem.
It was a simple rationale: The VA had been embroiled in a scandal that undermined its basic function as a government agency, and was in need of serious reforms that could not be effectively implemented under the existing leadership because of the potential for “distraction.”
Why does this rationale not apply to John Brennan?
Brennan’s presence is as much, if not more, of a distraction than Shinseki’s. The former VA secretary was at least apologetic when allegations of wrongdoing rocked his agency. When Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, first accused the CIA of spying on her staffers, Brennan was defiant. “We wouldn't do that,” he said. “I mean, that's — that's just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.” And he predicted vindication: “When the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.” That obviously didn’t happen. So now he’s on record giving a false denial of serious breach of protocol that is very much illegal (the CIA cannot spy on Americans) and arguably rises to the level of a constitutional crisis.
In the Senate, Rand Paul and Mark Udall are calling for Brennan to be fired. Editorialists and transparency advocates also want Brennan gone. And yet, there’s a general sense that Obama will stand by Brennan.
Part of the reason why stems from Obama’s own position toward accountability at the CIA, which, as Adam Serwer documents, has been uneven in its application. “A Justice Department inquiry into interrogators who went beyond the 'legal' torture limits outlined by the Bush administration ended with no prosecutions. The Obama administration has blocked lawsuits from detainees who alleged they were tortured through state secrecy and immunity doctrines.”
Another reason Brennan can get away with failures like this is because the CIA, as part of the national security apparatus, isn’t subject to the same norms for accountability that other parts of the government operate under. Put simply: The people in charge are willing to cut them more slack because they work in national defense. Obama said as much when discussing the torture report during his press briefing on Friday:
I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this. And it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.
A darker interpretation of this idea was offered up by Conor Freidersdorf, who wondered if Brennan will escape consequences because he knows all the Obama administration’s national security secrets and is thus not someone the administration wants to piss off.
Whatever the reason, Brennan is a problem for the White House. He categorically denied the agency’s illegal activities, which means he was either misled by the people who report to him and offered up their lies as truth (“too trusting,” as the since departed Shinseki put it), or he himself lied. Either way, if Brennan stays at his post, Obama will have to explain why he still trusts him, and why we should as well.