US National Security Agency

Catch-22 as American agencies spy on each other

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 4:34am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 4:34am

The Edward Snowden affair should have taught American intelligence agencies a lesson. Revelations by the whistle-blower about the reach of the National Security Agency's intelligence gathering prompted questions about the oversight of lawmakers and courts. Foreign governments and internet and telecommunication companies, outraged that data was being unknowingly tapped, protested and implemented stronger protections. It is therefore shocking that another US spying branch, the Central Intelligence Agency, is fighting a congressional probe of its activities.

Senate intelligence committee members accuse the CIA of potentially unlawfully accessing their staff computers and ignoring President Barack Obama's orders on surveillance and search limits to remove sensitive documents being used for an investigation of the agency's detention and interrogation programme. Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein, who has labelled Snowden a traitor, said last week that the CIA's actions had undermined the separation of powers that divide the government's executive and legislative branches.

CIA director John Brennan has refused to apologise and denied his agency is at fault. The agency has made veiled claims that an internal review central to the committee's still-classified report of almost 6,000 words was illegally obtained by hackers working for the lawmakers' staff. Competing claims of criminal wrongdoing are being considered by the justice department.

The dispute is potentially as damaging for the US as Snowden's disclosures. With the former NSA contractor continuing to press his case for greater oversight of American intelligence from Russia, where he is in exile to avoid facing charges of espionage, the Obama administration has been pushing to improve transparency and legislative accountability. The president needs Feinstein's support to implement what critics perceive to be limited changes, but also cannot snub his handpicked CIA director. That the CIA is accused of spying on the government is ironic enough; the charges against Snowden would be a moot point if senate staff were found to have taken documents from an intelligence agency in a similar manner.

National security is essential, but citizens' rights have to be protected with proper oversight. Many in the US now realise this. But the message clearly has not properly sunk in for spy agencies: The CIA would seem to still think it has the right to withhold information from the committee that oversees it.