Merkel Effect strikes Senate Intelligence Comittee

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the results of a hoagie-eating contest.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the results of a hoagie-eating contest.

Yesterday, Dianne Feinstein told the Senate that the CIA had hacked into and deleted files from computers the Intelligence Committee used to investigate agency waterboarding and interrogation techniques, calling the spying a “defining moment” in the oversight of American intelligence. It sure felt that way. Back when whistleblower traitor Edward Snowden revealed that the agencies were spying on the American people, Feinstein vigorously defended the secret electronic surveillance as an indispensable tool in the fight against terrorism. Later, when we learned that the NSA and CIA had also spied on foreign heads of state including Angela Merkel, our elected representatives lost their minds—a hypocrisy Snowden identified in Feinstein again yesterday. Call it the Merkel Effect.

It makes sense that senators would countenance broad surveillance of the American people but flip their gray, well-trimmed lids when it happens to them. The general public is 1% terrorist, and so their rights must be tempered with the knowledge that some of them are traitors who need to be watched and/or tortured. The Senate, on the other hand, is 100% loyal Americans, and they have rights, dammit.

You’ll pardon my cynicism. It’s just that I find the Merkel Effect alarming as a canary in the mine of representative government, and also virtually every other element of this story is classified. The 6,300-page Intelligence Committee report is secret. So is the document produced by the CIA’s own internal investigation of its pre-2009 detention and interrogation policies. The documents that Intelligence Committee members investigated are classified, too, and here’s what Jay Carney had to say about the White House’s response:

Well, let me just say, folks here and in the administration have been in regular consultation with Chairman Feinstein about the broader issues here. We’ve made clear that we want to see the report’s findings declassified.

Can we please refrain from using the word “folks” when we’re talking about the secret debate over how and where we waterboarded people? Also, perhaps the folks here in America could vote better if we knew about the “broader issues” our president and senators have been consulting about.

Again we encounter the problem of secret government. Why, exactly, do we need to maintain so much secrecy around CIA programs that ended in 2009—and the investigation of those programs, and the conclusions of that investigation? As an American without high-level security clearance, I’m beginning to feel left out. That’s a problem, since I suspect that now might be a moment when my government needs me.

If the CIA really did wipe information from Senate Intelligence Committee computers, as Feinstein alleges, it has breached the separation of powers in alarmingly unconstitutional ways. That’s some KGB shit, right there. I’m also interested in past instances of torture, but I am especially interested in why Feinstein believes secret phone and email surveillance of every American is okey dokey while snooping on the Intelligence Committee is a defining moment. My opinion of the intelligence community, the Obama administration and several senators might be strongly influenced by the details of this situation, if only I knew what any of them were.

But the federal government has classified not only what it does, but also what it thinks about what it does. In this context, the Merkel Effect only intensifies my sense that our elected representatives consider my opinion incidental to the running of the country. Feinstein is outraged that the CIA has interfered with the legislative branch’s secret investigation of the secret acts of the executive branch as ratified by secret courts, because the only way constitutional government can work is if all these important people are honest with one another.

Where does that leave us? It’s important to note that we wouldn’t even know about the century’s biggest Bill of Rights issue if a man whom our president accused of treason had not told us about it. Senator Feinstein would not have stood up to warn us of intelligence-community overreach if the community had not reached into her committee. And now that one branch of government appears to be spying on another, we are allowed to know about it only in the broadest terms.

The question before the Senate yesterday was not whether Americans should be governed on a need-to-know basis, but whether senators need to know. Maybe John Brennan is telling the truth, and the CIA didn’t spy on the Intelligence Committee. That claim is in dispute. But no one is disputing that the whole inquiry, like the inquiry into which it inquires, should be kept secret from the voting public. How do you feel about that? It doesn’t matter.

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