"It was a tactic designed to intimidate and embarrass me," Chair of the House Oversight Committee Jason Chaffetz said in a statement last night. "And frankly, it is intimidating. It’s scary to think about all the possible dangers in having your personal information exposed."
Chaffetz was describing the effect of the news -- laid out in an eye-popping Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report -- that 45 Secret Service employees used the agency's internal database to access a record showing Chaffetz once applied to work in the agency. The agents did so because Chaffetz had been particularly aggressive when conducting a hearing on possible Secret Service misconduct.
While it noted a few exceptions, the report described how employee after employee violated the Privacy Act -- which ensures the government doesn't misuse the private information it holds for governmental functions -- without even realizing it was wrong to do so. "Some thought that accessing such a record, even to satisfy personal curiosity, was appropriate because it was 'our database,'" the report noted.
Worse, as had been suspected at the beginning of the report, such snooping did result in a leak to the press. The IG report explained how Secret Service Assistant Director Ed Lowery sent an email with the information, stating "some information [Chaffetz] might find embarrassing needs to get out." It did. Three days after that email, the Daily Beast reported the news that Chaffetz had been rejected for employment by the agency.
This was a law enforcement and intelligence agency -- including the Secret Service's Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information and the Countersurveillance Division -- using information at its disposal, to push back on appropriate oversight.
But this is not an isolated case.
In 2014, as CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee continued to argue about the committee's Torture Report -- which showed that the CIA's torture program had been more abusive and even less effective than previously known -- something similar happened. The committee started pressing for evidence that, in an internal review known as the Panetta Report, which was begun shortly after Leon Panetta took over the CIA in 2009, the agency itself had agreed with the conclusions the committee's Torture Report would ultimately draw. When oversight staffers obtained portions of the report, an agency lawyer ordered technical staff to secretly monitor the activities of the staffers, to learn how they had accessed it.
As Sen. Diane Feinstein explained when first exposing this surveillance, the CIA didn't ask the committee how it had gotten the document -- the committee maintains that it was part of a cache of documents provided by the CIA, intentionally or otherwise -- the agency instead just spied without warning. "The CIA did not ask the committee or its staff if the committee had access to the Internal Review, or how we obtained it," Feinstein explained. "Instead, the CIA just went and searched the committee’s computers."
When making that announcement, Feinstein listed several laws, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the CIA may have broken by conducting the search. To preempt an Inspector General referral of that activity, the CIA itself -- by way of a top agency lawyer named Robert Eatinger, who was mentioned more than 1,600 times in the Senate Torture Report -- filed a crime report on its overseers.
When Feinstein revealed these details on the Senate floor, she called it "a defining moment for the oversight of our Intelligence Community":
"How Congress responds and how this is resolved will show whether the Intelligence Committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee."
As Vice News reported in August, CIA Director John Brennan later drew up a letter apologizing to Feinstein for the spying. "I apologize for the actions of CIA officers," Brennan said in the letter. "I am committed to correcting the shortcomings that this report has revealed." Only Brennan never sent the letter. Instead, he set up an Accountability Review Board designed to avoid any real review of the CIA's activities. And, a year later, there has been no accountability for the CIA's effort to intimidate its overseers by spying on them and attacking them.
Perhaps the abuses revealed at Secret Service, the snooping in Chaffetz' file, will be different. Perhaps those who used the knowledge they hoard to try to escape necessary oversight will face legal consequences.
But until that happens, the points Feinstein made about the CIA seem to apply more generally. Executive branch spies and law enforcement officers appear to believe the appropriate response to the oversight envisioned by the Constitution is to turn agency authorities back onto their overseers, to intimidate, embarrass, perhaps even legally compromise. How much more of this is going on, that we don't hear of, perhaps because it results in blackmail rather than leaks to the press and criminal referrals?
And if our nation's law enforcement and spy agencies feel free to spy on their overseers, what are they doing to us?