A diplomat was once defined as someone whose job is to lie for his country. That's apparently what makes them different from intelligence officers, whose function is to lie to their country.
How else can you explain why CIA Director John Brennan hasn't been shown the door? Or how Director of National Intelligence James Clapper remains on the federal payroll? Or why Keith Alexander stepped down as head of the National Security Agency only when he was good and ready?
Each of them lied flagrantly to the American people about vital matters of public concern. None paid a price.
The latest example erupted last week, when the CIA's inspector general confirmed that the agency had hacked into Senate Intelligence Committee computers and read emails sent by staffers. The investigation came after Sen. Dianne Feinstein revealed the surreptitious search, charging that the CIA had violated federal law and the Constitution.
At the time, Brennan rejected Feinstein's accusation, insisting that "nothing could be further from the truth." Places far from the truth are his native land. Only after the inspector general delivered his report was Brennan forced to admit he was wrong about Feinstein's complaint—without revealing whether the falsehood was the result of dishonesty or of ignorance.
Yet President Barack Obama shrugged it all off. "I have full confidence in John Brennan," he said, raising the question of what the CIA director would have to do to forfeit his trust. Kill Zooey Deschanel with his bare hands on national TV?
The committee's mistake was looking into something the CIA really didn't want examined: how it interrogated detainees and what it got from them. What the still-classified committee report says, according to the Associated Press, is that the methods "were far more brutal than previously understood" and "failed to produce life-saving intelligence"—and that the agency deceived Congress and the State Department about them.
The assessment is supposed to be made public at some point, but the fight with the committee isn't over. On Tuesday, Feinstein said the CIA is insisting on redactions that would deprive the public of "key facts that support the report's findings and conclusions."
It's no surprise that Brennan finds transparency unappealing. In using waterboarding and other vicious techniques, the agency shredded a 1994 federal law that bans torture. It violated international treaties ratified by the United States.
It even killed people: Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell during the Bush administration, testified that 108 detainees had died in the custody of the CIA or the U.S. military, including at least 25 homicides. The CIA destroyed hundreds of hours' worth of video footage documenting what it had done.
Lying to the people they are supposed to serve is just part of the job description for top intelligence officials. At a 2013 Senate hearing, Clapper was asked, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" He said it didn't—despite the agency's massive collection of domestic phone records.
Clapper delivered that reply even though he had been given the question in advance, and he stuck to it even after the committee offered him the chance to change it. He gave it because he figured he could get away with lying. And he might have, if Edward Snowden hadn't exposed the truth.
Alexander lied about the bulk data surveillance before it was revealed and after. First he denied that the agency was collecting such records; then he claimed that the program had been instrumental in foiling 54 terrorist plots. Rebuked by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, he admitted the figure was hugely inflated, at least. A presidential review group put the number at zero.
Leahy was not the first overseer to be misled by Alexander. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said his agency had provided "untrue" information about the surveillance, taken "unauthorized" steps and "systematically violated" the court's orders. One FISA judge said what he was told by Alexander "strains credulity."
But Obama does nothing to punish or deter such behavior. Instead, he makes excuses, like the overindulgent father of an incorrigible delinquent. His loyalty lies with the spooks, not with the people who elected him.
Snowden can't come home from his exile in Moscow for fear of going to prison, perhaps for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, these officials sleep soundly—beyond accountability, far from the truth and above the law.