In from the cold: CIA in hot seat with Senate and fallout from Snowden disclosures

Jeff Zeleny, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Power Players

The art of a good spy is to go undetected.

But as tensions continue between Congress and the CIA over allegations that the intelligence agency improperly spied on Senate staffers, the nation’s spy agency has found itself squarely in the spotlight. Veteran CIA officer Peter Earnest told “The Fine Print” that the conflict between the nation’s spies and its legislators is nothing new.

“There's often tension … over access,” Earnest told “The Fine Print” during an interview at the International Spy Museum in Washington, where Earnest is now executive director. “Should we give them this? Should we give them that? In other words, do they have a right to have this? This is about sources. This is method. Whereas the overseers think we should be able to have that.”

Earnest, who worked as an operative and as the CIA’s liaison to the Senate, said the CIA has historically taken a “bad rap” from Congress and that recent attention on the agency, from the likes of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Sen. Rand Paul, is just the present day manifestation of the strained relationship.

“Even if you go back to the time of the Church committee the question was raised, very much like Rand Paul, ‘is this an out-of-control agency?’” he said. “The question then was ‘Is this a rogue agency?’ And the findings in the end were no. The issue if there is one is it's highly responsive to the direction that it's given.”

Earnest pointed to the period after Sept. 11, 2001, when the CIA’s so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as water boarding on captured terrorists, as an example of the CIA responding to direction from political leaders that it was later faulted for instituting.

“There was great concern, indeed fear, in this nation about what would happen next,” Earnest said, recalling the time after the 2001 terrorist attacks. “The CIA pressed the Department of Justice to get guidelines for what they could do and what they could not do. At the time, they felt they had permission to do what they did. President Obama came in and said no, that's torture, we're not going to do that.”

During the time, Earnest said there was likely “intense” internal discussion at the CIA as to whether or not some of the harsher interrogation methods, like water boarding, were torture.

“There were probably people who didn't want anything to do with the program, others who felt they had a green light and should proceed with it,” he said.

On the topic of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who disclosed thousands of classified documents about U.S. surveillance operations, Earnest characterized him as a traitor who has cost the U.S. intelligence community billions of dollars and lost the country years’ worth of intelligence gathering.

“Much of what Snowden has revealed is not about domestic surveillance it's about foreign surveillance and that is the work of the intelligence agencies,” he said. “Those who would do us harm, whether it's Al Qaeda, other groups of terrorists, organized drug dealers, crime and so forth, have a much clearer picture of what our capabilities are and how we may use those against them. That is incredibly disabling for our intelligence folks, for our law enforcement folks.”

Part of the problem with preventing future leaks like those that Snowden made, Earnest said, is that the government’s post-9/11 policy on intelligence matters means that intelligence secrets are shared much more widely than they previously were.

“One of the things that shocked those of us in the intelligence community who were not in NSA is to see the amount of damage that he was able to do,” he said of Snowden. “Part of that is a result of post 9/11 when the mantra in intelligence became need to share. Throughout the Cold War it was need to know.”

For more of the interview with Earnest, including what he recalls as the most exciting moment from his 25 years at the CIA, check out this episode of “The Fine Print.”

ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Melissa Young, and John Knott contributed to this episode.