The CIA Spying on Congress is Big News, Right?

Americans are bombarded with headlines. Turn on FoxNews or CNN, look to the bottom of the screen, and appreciate the modern wonder that is the news ticker. The news ticker became ubiquitous in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when there was a legitimate argument to be made that news outlets were inundated with relevant information. But, in the intervening years, it hasn’t gone away.

CNN covers the most important news of the day. The second most important news of the day is covered in their news ticker.

CNN covers the most important news of the day. The second most important news of the day is covered in their news ticker.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously observed that “the medium is the message.”  When it comes to the news ticker, that analysis is right on the money: the very presence of a continuos flow of updating information signals to the viewer that the news is urgent and important. Financial channels use a ticker that updates minute-to-minute changes in stock prices to convince viewers that what they should care about is minute-to-minute changes in stock prices. Even ESPN uses a ticker. Perhaps the worst offender is the front page of The Huffington Post, which is always laid out in a way that is reminiscent of the sinking of the Titanic or the end of World War II.

he Huffington Post reports on the vicious attack suffered by Speaker of the House John Boehner at the hands of ballet dancers from the 1970s.

The Huffington Post reports on the vicious attack suffered by Speaker of the House John Boehner at the hands of ballet dancers from the 1970s.

The inevitable consequence is that the public loses its ability to distinguish between the news that’s important and the news that’s merely, well, new. And that can be a big distortion of national priorities.

I bring this up for a very specific reason. On Tuesday, the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee accused the Central Intelligence Agency of spying on Congress and of interfering with a congressional investigation into the CIA’s unauthorized destruction of evidence. Specifically, the CIA has admitted to destroying video tapes of that agency’s enhanced interrogation – i.e. torture – of detainees. Feinstein is now accusing the CIA of monitoring the Congressional investigation and of removing evidence from a database that had previously been made available to Congressional staffers.

John Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

John Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

In turn, the CIA is accusing Congress of mishandling classified information when staffers, fearing that additional documents would ‘disappear’, made copies of those documents and moved them to a secure Senate building. The CIA has, in a provocative act, referred the matter to the FBI.

The details – CIA agents and Congressional staffers racing to hide documents from each other – would make for a taut political thriller. But that’s not the news, not really. The news is that Congress has lost the ability to oversee this country’s clandestine operations. That the revelation was made by Dianne Feinstein, a prominent supporter of the National Security Agency’s recently-revealed spying programs, should be particularly sobering.

A constitutional democracy likes ours requires basic tradeoffs. The one between freedom and security is foundational and unavoidable. On the one hand, the government needs to be able to sometimes act in secrecy, and it needs to be able to punish breaches in security. There’s a wing in both parties that prefers to take the less-nuanced approach that secrecy is always corrosive to freedom. Maybe, but George Washington hanged spies – so lets not pretend that state secrets are some sort of modern fall from grace.

On the other hand, a state that can, through secrecy, insulate its actions from political scrutiny is on a remarkably slippery slope. I don’t know how the tussle between Feinstein and the CIA will end. But I do know that the very fact that it is a tussle should be incredibly alarming. The CIA has no authority or legitimacy to set policy for the country; that task falls exclusively on our elected representatives.

But our elected representatives can’t even figure out what the country’s security agencies are doing, and now those agencies are spying on them. That’s news – put it on the ticker.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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