Today Jason Leopold and Ryan Shapiro, commonly known as Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) warriors, upped the ante in their fight for more transparency from the CIA relating to its Bush-era torture and rendition program. Leopold, a freelance investigative journalist, and Shapiro, a researcher at MIT, have filed a lawsuit against the CIA compelling the agency to release documents about their spying on Senate lawmakers who were tasked with investigating CIA torture.
It was revealed in March that the CIA were spying on the computers of congressional staff working on an extensive report looking into the torture program. The allegations sparked outrage, even from the spy agency's stalwart defenders, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who said such surveillance "may have undermined the constitutional framework” of congressional oversight.
This has become a case of secrecy shrouding furtiveness shrouding secrecy: A classified report compiled by the Senate Intelligence Committee that was investigating a highly covert CIA program of torture, which was secretly spied upon by agents, who are now refusing to be transparent about this surveillance. Following the CIA's refusal to respond to an original FOIA request, Leopold and Shapiro are taking their attempt to undo this tight knot of government secrecy to court.
“The U.S. intelligence community is notorious for its profound hostility to transparency,” Shapiro said in a statement released first to VICE News. “In the present case, the CIA appears to have spied upon the very Senate intelligence committee tasked with overseeing the CIA’s torture program."
The PhD candidate and activist, who has been named by the FBI as their "most prolific" FOIA requester, said of his latest suit that "the CIA is further flouting transparency by refusing to comply with our FOIA request for records on this troubling affair. The democratic process cannot meaningfully function without an informed citizenry, and such a citizenry is impossible without broad public access to information about the operations of government."
The extent to which the CIA spied upon the Senate torture investigation — potentially grounds for a constitutional crisis — is without question a matter of public interest. At every step, the agency has been fiercely protective of narratives surrounding some of its worst atrocities, including the destruction of tapes recording agents waterboarding detainees.
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden noted in March, "It’s clear the CIA was trying to play ‘keep away’ with documents relevant to an investigation by their overseers in Congress, and that’s a serious constitutional concern." At the time, Snowden made a further point pertinent to Shapiro and Leopold's latest lawsuit. In response to Feinstein's outraged response to the CIA spying on her committee, Snowden noted, “we’re seeing another ‘Merkel effect,’ where an elected official does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies, but suddenly it’s a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them.”
Shapiro and Leopold are committed to more than protecting the privacy of lawmakers. Their FOIA work aims to force a chink in the armor of government opacity, tout court. This latest suit exemplifies but does not complete this effort.
"It’s time for the CIA and the rest of the US intelligence community to recognize transparency not as a threat, but rather as an essential component of viable democracy,” Shapiro said.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard