Dick Polman: Why won’t Obama fire the liar?
We’re taught as kids that lying is bad, that liars should be held accountable. But in Washington, lying is so endemic and so flagrant that the perpetrators are rarely even rebuked.
Case in point, CIA chief John Brennan.
In 2008, voters fed up with the Bush team’s lies yearned for an administration that would tell the truth. Candidate Obama promised transparency and accountability. Yet at an Aug. 1 press briefing, he signaled that Brennan would pay no penalty for the whopper he uncorked back in March, when he publicly declared with fervent certitude that his CIA was not illegally spying on the U.S. Senate.
At the time, Senate investigators were readying an apparently damning report on the CIA’s use of torture (a redacted version has yet to be released); the investigators strongly believed that the CIA had breached secure Senate computers in an attempt to learn what the evidence was, what the report would conclude, and perhaps to thwart those conclusions. Sen. Dianne Feinstein angrily charged that the CIA had “violated the separation-of-powers principles embodied in the U.S. Constitution.”
But when Brennan was confronted by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell at a think tank event, and asked whether the CIA had illegally accessed the Senate Intelligence Committee computers, here’s what he said in response:
“As far as the allegations of the CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s just beyond the, you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we do. … And, you know, when the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”
Well, now the facts have come out. In a report released last week, the CIA’s own inspector general said that five CIA employees—including two lawyers—conducted the spying and monitoring and hacking, in apparent violation of Title 18 of the federal statutes. (I say apparent only because the Justice Department “declined to open a criminal investigation.” Again, no accountability.)
The senatorial anger was bipartisan. Saxby Chambliss, the Intelligence Committee’s Republican vice chair, said, “This is very, very serious.” Democrat Mark Udall, another panel member, said: “I have no choice but to call for (Brennan’s) resignation—This grave misconduct not only is illegal, but it violates the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of separation of powers. These offenses, along with other errors in judgment by some at the CIA, demonstrate a tremendous failure of leadership, and there must be consequences.”
Consequences—yeah, right. Brennan rotely apologized to the Intelligence Committee. In Washington—and in this administration, which promised accountability—an apology is what passes for consequences.
But why should we be surprised? Back in June 2011, when Brennan was serving Obama as counterterrorism chief, he defended the drone assassination program and declared that no civilians had been killed during the previous year. In his words, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.” Turned out, a drone attack just three months earlier had killed 42 Pakistanis, most of them civilians.
Brennan suffered no consequences for that lie, either. Nor has James Clapper, the national intelligence director, paid any penalty for the lie he told under oath to a Senate committee. Perhaps you remember it. In March 2013, a senator asked Clapper, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” And Clapper replied, “No sir. Not wittingly.” Three months later, Edward Snowden proved with evidence that the NSA was collecting quite wittingly.
So what’s the deal here? Why won’t Obama fire liars?
Maybe Brennan and Clapper are deemed essential in the fight against terrorism. In all likelihood, Obama is playing realpolitik (dictionary definition: “a system of politics based on … needs rather than on ideas about what is morally right and wrong”). He probably feels compelled to demonstrate to the national intelligence bureaucracy—over and over—that he’s not a bleeding-heart wimp. So he protects guys who lie to the American people, who lie to the lawmakers tasked with holding them accountable.
Goodbye, moral compass.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.