What happens when you lie to Congress? Historically, the answer is not much. But documented CIA lying to Congress should spark a Congressional inquiry. That inquiry would free up billions of dollars in federal funding for programs that need it. It could be an ideal springboard for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealing with the legacy of post-9/11 torture abroad and racialized violence at home. And it might force the federal government to apply equal opportunity law to itself as it is applied to others.
So, what happened? In a letter to Congress, the CIA denied side-stepping equal opportunity law when it comes to security decisions. But the documentary evidence, along with interviews I began conducting in 2009, shows otherwise. So lots of people think equal opportunity applies to federal law enforcement and federal security agencies — in part because of lies. But actually, feds can profile and agencies can do as they please, without regard for equal opportunity law — as long as they argue it’s for security. In fact, as the CIA Office of Security told whistleblower Ilana Greenstein, as far as they’re concerned, the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not apply.
“I had filed a complaint based on Security’s disparate treatment based on my faith, which is Jewish,” Ilana said. “In part based on the questions they had asked me. Even from my earliest polygraphs, about synagogues I had attended when I had traveled. Really questions that I felt were inappropriate and irrelevant and different from what they asked different ethnic or racial or religious groups.”
But as former CIA Director Jim Woolsey pointed out, there’s another side to the equal opportunity argument in security decisions. “…if I interpreted the non-discrimination right in such a way as to say, well I need a spy in Syria but… I have to regard young Syrian Americans exactly the same way I would regard young Americans who were native Americans from Tierra del Fuego or Norway. My Tierra del Fuego American or my Norwegian American is sure as the devil not going to pass as a normal citizen of Syria. I might better well find somebody who looks, acts, sounds, and speaks fluently Syrian accented Arabic. Otherwise, I’m sending them to their death.”
Given the necessities of discretion in quality police and intelligence work, reformers are often hesitant to propose uniform best practice reforms. A workable compromise might leave that discretionary power intact for security decisions that have to do with investigating a specific case of reported misconduct, or evaluating qualifications for a specific job. But refrain from exempting entire mass security screening programs — such as federal polygraph screening programs in government and airport/border checkpoints for the rest of us — from the equal opportunity law that the same federal government holds others to in a similar context.
Lying to Congress is bad. Breaking the law is bad. But lying to Congress about breaking the law can be good.
Because if you do it often enough, eventually someone might notice…