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article imageOp-Ed: U.S. spy agencies are running amok — Can they be stopped?

By Martin Laine     Aug 13, 2014 in Politics
The heavy curtain of secrecy that shrouds the work of American intelligence agencies has become seriously frayed over the past year. Revelations have included activities that range from immoral to illegal to unconstitutional.
There are 17 distinct U.S. intelligence agencies, though so far, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are the two that have come under recent scrutiny.
Both agencies are charged with protecting the country from enemies, both foreign and domestic. They come under the executive branch, meaning the president has the last say in what they can and cannot do. There is also the Senate Intelligence Committee, which oversees the activities of the agencies. The committee is made up of senior Senators who have the highest security clearance, so they can have access to sensitive information.
Both the president and the Senate committee get regular intelligence briefings, an opportunity to approve or object to whatever’s going on.
The reality is something quite different. The questionable activities that have been made public show an intelligence community that does just as it pleases, with no regard to laws or the principles of a constitutional democracy, all done behind the shield of “national security.”
During the Reagan administration of the 1980s, the CIA sent arms and money to a rebel group in Nicaragua called the Contras. As evidence of Contra death squads slaughtering innocent civilians as well as being involved in cocaine smuggling to the U.S., Congress passed a law forbidding any more aid to the group. Despite being illegal, CIA continued its relationship with the Contras.
Most recently the CIA has had to admit that it hacked into Senate committee computers and tampered with documents involving earlier CIA activities. These involved so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” during the Bush-Cheney administration — which many regard as torture — used against suspected terrorists.
This was kept secret from the Senate committee for eight years. Former CIA director Leon Panetta ordered a full report on the program, but it’s considered so volatile that the agency has resisted making it available to the Senate committee, never mind to the general public.
As for the NSA, its extensive surveillance of millions of Americans, whether or not there was any link to terrorists, was first exposed in the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. This went far beyond anything envisioned in the original intent of expanded surveillance activities approved under the Patriot Act, passed in reaction to the 9/11 attack. The expanded surveillance authority was meant to make it easier to eavesdrop in on the communications of terrorists.
In just these few instances, we see threats to the separation of powers, rights to privacy and clear violations of law.
So far, there’s been a lot of outrage, but nothing concrete has been done. Changes in policy have been proposed, but not implemented. Hearings have been held, only to have government officials lie. And when the lies are exposed, no penalties are imposed. We still have the same people in charge of the same programs, doing the same as they always have.
What’s clear is that the culture of the intelligence community must be changed. It’s also clear they’re not going to do this on their own. It’s time for the President and the Congress to go beyond hearings, reports, and rhetoric. They need to re-assert their authority, and if that means replacing agency officials with people who respect the law and Constitution, then so be it.
There are those who defend these programs as necessary to defend the country against its enemies. What’s disturbing is that this is the same argument that every dictator of the modern era, from Stalin to Saddam Hussein, has used to justify their excesses.
To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin — a nation that gives up its freedoms for security will soon have neither.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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