- - Monday, August 4, 2014

Edward Snowden threw quite a wrench into the schemes of America’s cloak-and-dagger corps. The spies still aren’t accustomed to the new reality. They can’t get away with fooling the public like they did in the good old days.

John O. Brennan is the latest to be caught red in both hand and face, telling a whopper. The hot-headed CIA director blew a gasket when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, offered evidence in March that government snoops had been hacking into the Senate Intelligence Committee’s computers. Mr. Brennan could not have been more emphatic in his denials.

“The allegations of CIA hacking into Senate computers,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations, “nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn’t do that. That’s just beyond the scope of reason.”

Mr. Brennan had to say that, or he would be admitting to something illegal. Since the 1970s America’s spy agencies have been prohibited by law from monitoring the “domestic activities of U.S. persons.” Snooping on the operations of another branch of the U.S. government is an unmistakable breach of that code, so Mr. Brennan was stuck with authorship of the whopper.

“When the facts come out on this,” he said, “I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this sort of tremendous spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.” Instead, Mr. Brennan has been proved wrong, and worse, lying about it.

In a closed meeting with senators last week, the CIA’s inspector general confirmed that the agency did in fact hack into Senate computers, and even Senate Democrats aren’t amused. “The Senate Intelligence Committee oversees the CIA, not the other way around,” says Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico. “I have lost all confidence in Director Brennan’s leadership of the CIA and his forthrightness in dealing with the committee.” Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado demanded his resignation.

Mrs. Feinstein is in a more forgiving mood, calling the forthcoming release of the inspector general’s report a “positive first step.” She suspects that changing the guard won’t change the institution.

Legislation is the better way to whip the spies into shape. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has introduced a stronger version of a bill that cleared the House in May, making it more difficult for the CIA and the NSA to vacuum telephone and email records of Americans. The bill modifies the Patriot Act to require more narrow requests for information.

Such requests now go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret body that currently rubber-stamps 99 percent of the spying requests that come before it. Mr. Leahy would have the court appoint five privacy-minded lawyers to be devil’s advocates in proceedings that are otherwise one-sided; the judge now hears only from the government. The special advocate would have access to certain classified material, including secret court decisions.

For the public, the spy court would have to make at least a summary of findings available, which would provide some transparency.

There are still plenty of loopholes in Mr. Leahy’s bill, and it’s not hard to see where they came from. “In developing this legislation,” says Mr. Leahy, “I have consulted closely with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the NSA, the FBI, and the Department of Justice — and every single word of this bill was vetted with those agencies.” That’s hardly reassuring.

Nevertheless, Mr. Leahy’s imperfect bill sends a message to these agencies that they’ve exhausted the nation’s patience. They should knock it off.