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Spy Agencies, Not Politicians, Hold the Cards in Washington

On television, the story line is about a wicked political schemer, accompanied by his wicked wife. In the real world of Washington, however, politicians look more like impotent innocents compared to their true masters. It is the spooks and the spies who shuffle the deck and deal the cards.

I am addicted to House of Cards, the British and American versions, but I suggest that both TV series have been looking at the wrong game.

On television, the story line is about a wicked political schemer, accompanied by his wicked wife, who climbs to the ultimate perch of power—prime minister or president—through fiendishly malevolent manipulations, including homicide. In the real world of Washington, however, politicians look more like impotent innocents compared to their true masters. It is the spooks and the spies who shuffle the deck and deal the cards. They hide their cut-throat intrigues behind bland initials—the CIA and the NSA.

In recent weeks, a lurid real-life melodrama has been playing out in the nation’s capital that has the flavor of old-fashioned conspiracy theories. The two clandestine agencies are the true puppet masters.

It is elected politicians, even the president, who are puppets dancing on a string. I hope the TV writers are taking notes. This would make a swell plot outline for a third season of the popular drama—”House of Cards, the Reality TV Version.”

The plot begins a decade ago in the bad years after 9/11 when the CIA embraced global torture in the war against terrorism. Official Washington was traumatized by the attack and looked the other way, pretending not to know what the spooks were doing. The men in black plucked various “terrorists” off the Arab Street and shipped them to less squeamish countries around the world where the US agents could use medieval methods for pain and punishment, techniques officially prohibited by US law.

The political system was at first shocked when gruesome details were exposed by vigilant reporters. But soon enough the spooks were being celebrated as our anonymous heroes—sticking it to the bad guys, satisfying the popular thirst for revenge. CIA operatives even taped the cruelty for agency archives. The torturers even got their own popular TV show called 24. The Bush administration issued far-fetched legal justifications explaining their torture wasn’t illegal torture. The press backed off a bit and began gingerly noting differences of opinion on waterboarding and sleep deprivation.

Eventually, as truth caught up with official lies and the long war in Iraq was exposed as another gigantic fraud, Americans lost their stomach for lawlessness in Washington. The CIA discreetly destroyed its torture tapes (a pity since this would have been terrific footage for the TV show). The Agency denied everything and promised not to do it again. The new president took their word for it. In a forgiving tone, Obama urged Americans not to be obsessed with old controversies. Congress assured the nation that the Intelligence Committees of House and Senate were exceedingly vigilant and they would scold the CIA vigorously if it ever lied again (details, alas, were kept “classified” so as not to aid the enemy).

Public affairs in Washington might have settled down to usual pretensions of “straight talk” except that some high-minded computer geeks came along and blew the doors off government secrecy. First, it was the notorious Wikileaks gang that posted reams of official government documents on the Internet, lighting bonfires of indignation around the world. Reading the private cables from US embassies or the text of a secretly negotiated trade agreement is an educational experience. It desanctifies the lofty legends of diplomacy.

Next it was Citizen Snowden who came forward with the crown jewels of secrets—the shocking dimensions of the National Security Agency’s digital invasion of privacy. The government really is listening to your daily pedestrian talk, recording our intimate thoughts. For many years, the people who believed this were usually also hearing voices from God and the Wizard of Oz. Now it is established that Americans at large are in the files, their phone calls conveniently recorded for the spooks and spies, should the government agencies find a reason to know more about you. The agency says it won’t do this (unless really, really necessary to save the nation). But we also learned the agency lies, not just to you and me, but to congressional inquiries.

The NSA and the CIA, though sometimes rivals for power, can be thought of as the “evil twins” of government bureaucracy—licensed to trample on the Bill of Rights in the name of protecting the nation from alien forces. The two agencies are joined at the hip by this new storm of staggering revelations. Both are trying awkwardly to maintain their Cold War mystique but the storm threatens to blow away their “house of cards.” Puppet-like politicians are exposed as utterly incompetent watchdogs. The puppet masters don’t look so smart either.

What’s promising is they are turning on each other. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and long-loyal apologist for the spy agencies, accused the CIA of spying on her committee’s belated investigation into the torture scandal. CIA Director John Brennan turned around and put the blame on her, actually accusing her committee staff of snooping on the agency. He even filed a complaint with the Justice Department and asked for a criminal investigation of the congressional oversight committee.

Feinstein in turn asked Justice to investigate Brennan. This is truly weird.

A Huffington Post headline captured the absurdity: ” Senators Okay with Spying on Citizens, But Outraged It Happened to Congress.” You can turn it around and make the same point. The CIA and NSA routinely ignore the law and Constitution themselves but want the Justice Department to protect them from an over-reaching Congress. The “House of Cards” is playing for laughs. Which side will President Obama take in this fight?

Meanwhile, Citizen Snowden continues his educational campaign with more bracing revelations about the National Security Agency. Thanks to Snowden, The Washington Post reported that the NSA has built a surveillance system that can record “100 percent” of a foreign country’s telephone calls—every single phone conversation. The voice interception program is called MYSTIC. Its official emblem portrays a gnarly wizard in a purple robe and pointy hat, holding a cell phone aloft. Do they think this is a Saturday morning cartoon?

“At the request of US officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the program is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned,” the story said. Furthermore, the Post reported that at least five other countries are listed for potential use of the same total collection though the Post doesn’t name them either. Each month, the newspaper reported, NSA analysts send millions of voice clippings for processing and long-term storage.

So which countries in the world are getting “hoovered” everyday by Washington? Russia or China? Maybe both? Or a trading rival like Germany? Whatever the agencies claim, we know not to take their denials too seriously. They lie when they think they need to lie, even to their supposed overseers. But Snowden and associates certainly know the answer. They could conduct a worldwide contest or conversation of their own—asking people to guess. Or Snowden can simply make the revelation and prepare to take a lot of heat from the desktop warriors in Washington.

The more I thought about it, I kept coming back to the homeland.

Maybe the NSA is listening to the USA. It cannot say so for obvious reasons but the premium value of turning the MYSTIC wizard loose on fellow Americans would be fantastic. Maybe for national security purposes or maybe for the NSA-CIA’s own security. Sounds outlandish, I know, but if the NSA can listen to the cell phone of Angela Merkel in Germany, it can undoubtedly listen in on Barack Obama in Washington. I am not making an accusation but asking the question describes the true depth of distrust the government has brought upon itself.

Where is the president in all this? Mostly limp and unpersuasive so far in very restrained responses. He didn’t fire the CIA director nor the NSA director though both have lied to Congress and the public, and are obvious candidates for blame. The president did not launch a seriously independent inquiry nor does he seem to understand that, whether or not it’s fair, the blame falls at his feet. Why didn’t he get angry?

Because he knows the secrets, he is therefore vulnerable to reprisal.

The spies may not have tapped the White House phones but they do know what he knows and can always make use of it. This is the very core of the card game played by the intelligence agencies and it didn’t start with Barack Obama. When any new president comes to town, he is told the secrets first thing and continuously. The briefings can be chilling but also thrilling.

Ultimately, it can also be slyly coopting to learn what the government knows only at the very highest level. As the agencies take the White House deeper and deeper into the black box, it becomes harder for a president to dissent. It also makes it riskier to do so. The CIA or NSA know what he heard and know what he said when he learned the secrets. If the president decides to condemn their dirty work, the spooks and spies can leak to the press how in the privacy of the Oval Office the commander-in-chief gave the green light.

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