John Brennan Dodges a Question About CIA Spying on Americans

Once again, a national-security official is asked a question with just one defensible answer. And he doesn't give it.
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Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, has often used his perch on the Senate Intelligence Committee to ask national-security officials if they're misbehaving. He typically focuses on abuses that are actually happening, so his latest exchange with CIA Director John Brennan demands wider attention. Udall asked if the CIA is engaged in domestic spying or searches on American citizens.

An idle question? One wouldn't think so.

And the CIA director appeared to evade the question. For that reason, I suspect, but certainly cannot prove, that the intelligence agency is, in fact, engaged in this behavior. But don't take my word for it. Look at the transcript and judge for yourself: 

UDALL: This committee was created to address a severe breach of trust that developed when it was revealed that the CIA was conducting unlawful domestic searches. The Church Committee went to work, found that to be true.

I want to be able to reassure the American people ... that the CIA and the director understand the limits of their mission and authorities. We're all aware of executive order 12333. That order prohibits the CIA from engaging in domestic spying and searches of US citizens within our borders. Can you assure the committee that the CIA does not conduct such domestic spying and searches? 

BRENNAN: I can assure the committee that the CIA follows the letter and the spirit of the law in terms of what the CIA's authorities are, in terms of its responsibilities to collect intelligence that will keep this country safe. Yes, Senator, I do. 

Hmm.

Reframing the question. Answering indirectly. Concluding with syntax that doesn't fit. It all seems suspicious. When Udall asked, "Can you assure the committee that the CIA does not conduct such domestic spying and searches?" Brennan could've replied, "Yes." But that isn't what he said at all. Why, do you think? There could be an explanation I'm missing, but Udall doesn't typically mislead with questions.

This is a subject to watch.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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