Activists on the left are demanding President Obama flex his muscle over the country’s spy agencies.
The CIA’s admission that a handful of officials spied on Senate staffers is proof that the White House has lost control of the intelligence agencies, critics say. They are also discomfited by the continued support Obama has offered for agency Director John Brennan.
“This is not an isolated incident,” said Becky Bond, political director with the progressive group Credo.
“The fact that these intelligence officials are able to keep their job when major breaches or major assaults on the Constitution are made public — let alone all the things that are happening that we don’t know about — it sets a very dangerous precedent,” she added.
In recent days, more than 42,000 people have signed Credo’s petition calling for Obama to “fire” Brennan, along with agency officials who knew about the snooping on Congress. The petition also calls for the Justice Department to file criminal charges against people involved in the congressional snooping.
The spying is just “the latest evidence that America's shadowy intelligence agencies are out of control,” the group said in its petition. “Yet disturbingly, President Obama is still defending Brennan.”
“It looks incredibly hypocritical relative to the promises he made over the campaign, and that’s completely been made transparent,” said Demand Progress executive director David Segal.
The CIA’s inspector general determined late last month that five agency officials had gained access to a database and emails belonging to Senate Intelligence Committee staffers working on a report about the agency’s history of “enhanced interrogation” practices such as waterboarding.
That revelation has led to multiple calls for Brennan to resign as the head of the spy agency, even though he has indicated he did not know about the incident.
Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have all called for Brennan to step down, and other lawmakers have suggested charges should be pressed against the CIA officials.
Obama, however, has stood by Brennan, with whom he has a long and close history.
“I have full confidence in John Brennan,” he said at a White House press conference this month, while referring to the spying as “some very poor judgment.”
For critics, it’s not just about the CIA.
Obama has also stood by his intelligence agencies over the last year and a half, as leaks from Edward Snowden have detailed multiple ways that the National Security Agency gathers information about people without a warrant.
Beyond that, the White House has declined to condemn Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for telling Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in a Senate hearing last summer that the government does not collect “any type of data at all on millions of Americans,” even though the Snowden leaks later showed that it did just that.
All the while, the Obama administration has increased its prosecution of government leakers, bringing more cases under the Espionage Act than all other previous administrations combined.
The current scuffle with the CIA could make it easier for Obama to change the culture at the agency, said Ken Gude, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
“The farther out there the CIA gets, the easier it is for the administration to push back on it,” he said.
Release of the upcoming analysis of the George W. Bush-era tactics at the CIA, known as the “torture report,” could compel Obama to act, too.
The classified 6,000-page report is said to contain details of an especially brutal interrogation and detention regime, as well as assertions that the methods may not have helped in the fight against terrorism.
“I think if the American people are allowed access to enough declassified material in the report, then President Obama will face an accountability moment,” said Bond, the political director at Credo. “And if he does not take action, he would go down in history as the president who presided over one of the greatest losses of American civil liberties in the 21st Century.”
The CIA and its supporters have pushed back against the report and noted that agents at the time considered themselves patriots who were told their actions were legal.
Action against officials at the CIA would certainly change the tone of his relationship with the intelligence community and could allow Obama to break symbolic ties with the old guard.
There is still time for the president to right the course, in the minds of his critics.
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson claimed this week that the White House has so far taken a “la-de-dah attitude” to the CIA affair.
“Bush and [former Vice President Dick] Cheney created a monster,” he wrote. “Obama, in the time he has left in office, had better tame it.”
“He wants to leave to his successor a much more stable platform for national security and intelligence policy in the United States,” added Gude, with the Center for American Progress. “We are probably not as far as we would have liked to be after six years of his presidency, but I believe that there is certainly still time to accomplish that before he leaves office.
“I am hopeful that the trajectory of this particular episode will put us on that right path,” he added.