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The CIA’s Other Spy Scandal: Agency Monitored Emails Between Congress & Whistleblowing Officials

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The Central Intelligence Agency has admitted its officials spied on a Senate panel probing the agency’s torture and rendition program. An internal probe found 10 CIA employees monitored Senate staffers’ computers. This development comes days after another revelation of CIA spying on Congress emerged. According to McClatchy Newspapers, the agency has also been spying on emails from whistleblower officials and Congress, "triggering fears the CIA has been intercepting the communications of officials who handle whistleblower cases." In part 2 of our interview, we are joined now by Jonathan Landay, senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.

Click here to watch part 1 of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.

AARON MATÉ: The Central Intelligence Agency has admitted its officials spied on a Senate panel probing the agency’s torture and rendition program. An internal probe found 10 CIA employees monitored Senate staffers’ computers. This development comes days after another revelation of CIA spying on Congress emerged. According to McClatchy, the agency has also been spying on emails from whistleblower officials and Congress, triggering fears the CIA has been intercepting the communications of officials who handle whistleblower cases.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, McClatchy revealed how the Insider Threat program had become an unprecedented government-wide crackdown in which federal bureaucrats are ordered to monitor colleagues for so-called "high-risk" persons or behaviors. The program covers virtually every federal department and agency, including the Peace Corps, the Department of Education and others not directly involved in national security.

We’re joined by Jonathan Landay, senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. In a moment, we’ll follow up on part one of our conversation about the CIA spying on Senate staffers, but first talk about this previous exposé of the CIA spying on the officials who are supposed to be protecting whistleblowers.

JONATHAN LANDAY: The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has been leading this effort to crack down on unauthorized disclosures of information, classified information, but also unclassified information, under what’s known as the Obama administration’s Insider Threat program. As part of that, he has talked about doing what they call continuous evaluation of the communications of U.S. officials who have—who carry top-secret clearances. Now, that includes watching their emails, and apparently in doing so, they have not been able to discriminate, in setting up this system, between emails, regular emails, and what are supposed to be confidential emails from officials in the intelligence community involved in supporting whistleblowers and their communications with people on Capitol Hill, who also take a great interest in protecting whistleblowers.

And a whistleblower official’s email concerning someone who was tangentially involved in the CIA’s interrogation program ended up in the hands of the CIA inspector general, David Buckley. And it so happens that the allegations contained in this email was that Buckley himself had failed to pursue diligently an investigation into this whistleblower’s complaint that the CIA had retaliated against officers who had in fact cooperated in the Senate committee’s investigation, had in fact retaliated by withholding the payment of attorneys’ fees that they had promised to pay on behalf of these officers. This email ended up in the hands of the man who was at the center of this complaint. And that provoked—this was an email from a whistleblower official about this allegation to people on Capitol Hill. This provoked deep fears on Capitol Hill that all such communications involving whistleblowers that are supposed to be confidential are ending up in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, people who are the subject of these allegations.

AMY GOODMAN: And who are these whistleblower officials?

JONATHAN LANDAY: These are people who are in the inspector generals’ offices of all of the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, as well as—well, and who are overseen by a man who works under James Clapper in the inspector general’s office for the intelligence community. Their job is to receive whistleblower complaints, evaluate them and, in instances where they find legitimacy to these complaints, pursue these complaints, including keeping people on Capitol Hill in the loop about what these complaints involve. And it’s a job that requires a great deal of confidentiality, because obviously you don’t—they don’t want the whistleblowers’—the subject of the whistleblowers’ allegations to learn about these allegations, because what you have then is retaliation against these whistleblowers for complaining about—for filing their complaints. And there are numerous instances where we know people who have blown the whistle legitimately on waste, fraud and abuse have in fact been retaliated against.

AARON MATÉ: What are the implications here, on a broad scale? You’ve covered the Insider Threat program, which entailed government officials monitoring a wide range of departments. Put this in that broader context here of whistleblowing inside the government.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Well, what it does is it raises questions about whether the entire whistleblower—the so-called whistleblower system, the avenues by which whistleblowers can bring complaints of waste, fraud and abuse to the ears of Congress, to law enforcement officials, whether that works at all. People who have tried that system—we know that Edward Snowden claims that he had to go outside the government and leak all of the classified information that he did, because the whistleblower system doesn’t work. There are other people we know of who have done the same.

So it raises a great deal of questions about this system, which in fact, aside from monitoring computer use, communications of people with clearances, also depends on federal employees basically keeping watch on other co-workers for unusual behaviors, like, you know, if they suddenly come into a bunch of money, or they’re undergoing—or they exhibit emotional problems, that they have to report those to the Insider Threat—people who run the Insider Threat programs, because this could be indications that these people in the future could leak classified information. Outside of the intelligence community and outside of the government, that’s called profiling. And that’s not—it’s something that has been proven to not work. And yet this is what’s going on with the expansion of the Insider Threat program.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan, this covers every agency, I mean, from the Department of Education to the Peace Corps?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Every government agency that has access to classified computer networks is covered by this. But the interesting thing is that the directive that came out from—the very broad directive that came out from President Obama on implementing this program—and this is not just about—doesn’t follow just the Snowden leaks, but also the WikiLeaks leaks—leaves it to the discretion of individual departments. And what these departments have done is apply this program not just to unauthorized leaks of classified information, but unauthorized leaks of information generally. And so, what it seeks to do is clamp down on any effort by people within the bureaucracies of the federal government perhaps to just explain to a reporter like me the ins and outs of policy, not to leak classified information and not to give me scoops, but to try and put in context the thinking behind policy decisions, whether it has to do with foreign policy or the healthcare system, the "Obamacare" program. Whatever it is, this Insider Threat program, the crackdown applies—goes beyond classified information.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to ask you how you have discovered all of this. And this goes to this larger issue of reporters getting leaks. You know, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch just released this report called "With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale U.S. Surveillance Is Harming Journalism, Law, and American Democracy." So talk about how you get your leaks and if you’re being hindered right now in getting these leaks.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Well, at least as far as our reporting on the Insider Threat program, there are a lot of documents within these agencies that are not classified, that—some of them may be official use only, but they’re not classified—that give the broad outlines of what they intend to do or what they are implementing within the bureaucracies. For instance, I’ll give you an example: The document that we obtained on how the Department of Defense is implementing its Insider Threat program describes leaks of classified information to journalists as being the same as espionage, i.e. they’re accusing me, as a journalist and a loyal American citizen, of being a spy, essentially. And that’s not what I do as a job, and in fact I resent that description entirely. What I do is, hopefully, enhance the quality of our democracy by exposing to the American people the decisions that are made on their behalf inside the government, and not just in the unclassified realm, but in the classified realm, as well. And if I can’t do that, if I can’t educate the American people about the decisions that are made on their behalf, in their name, by their government, that really does have an impact on the quality of our democracy, because they don’t have the information—all the information they perhaps need to make informed judgments when they walk into a voting booth, when they turn up at a hearing, a congressional hearing, you know, or even as simple as going to a town hall meeting to talk about decisions affecting local transportation systems, for instance. They need information in order to make sound judgments about what their government is doing.

AARON MATÉ: So, back to the issue of spying on the Senate by the CIA, Brennan obviously denied it back in March, said those who allege it will be proved wrong. Now he’s apologized and said that, in fact, they were right. What do you make of the gap between then and now? Is there any indication that he misled Congress?

JONATHAN LANDAY: You know, I don’t know. I think—he was responding to a specific question, and that specific question was: Did the CIA hack into the Senate staff’s computers, and in an effort to thwart their investigation into the detention and interrogation program? Now, I think if you were to ask somebody at the CIA, including John Brennan, whether they hacked into this database used by Senate staffers, they would say, "Absolutely not, because that was our system, that was our network, that was our database. Yes, we had an agreement that we weren’t going to go in there, but we can’t hack into our own system." And, in fact, the people who did this thought that there was a security violation going on and did what they thought they were empowered to do. Now, a lot of other people will say, "Wait a minute, you’re splitting hairs here. You hacked into a database. In fact, what you did was hack, because you weren’t supposed to go in there. You weren’t supposed to have access to that, and you did." And so—

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of having access to that, what it is that now senators who are calling for the resignation of Brennan are saying, that it’s unconstitutional, it violates separation of powers?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Yes, yes. I mean, they’re saying that the fact that they went in there in violation of this agreement—they went in to look at what the Senate staff had in there—was a violation of the constitutional separation of powers and may also have been a violation of a federal computer fraud act, as well. We didn’t hear Senator Feinstein repeat that charge yesterday, but there are senators who believe that may well have been the case and that the Justice Department needs to investigate that. But not only do we know, according to Senator Feinstein, that they went in to see what the Senate staff—what her staff had in that database, but they also removed documents. There are two occasions, she said, in 2010 when that happened, and that they also in fact blocked the staffers access to documents that are already in that database that they had already seen, and then suddenly they were no longer able to access. So it goes beyond this idea that they had gone into the database to see what was in there.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Landay, we want to thank you for being with us, senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. We will link to your articles at McClatchy. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.

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