CIA admits it broke into Senate computers; senators call for spy chief’s ouster

John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency
Pete Marovich | MCT
John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency
Posted Aug. 01, 2014, at 6:45 a.m.
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine
Gabor Degre | BDN
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine Buy Photo

WASHINGTON — An internal CIA investigation confirmed allegations that agency personnel improperly intruded into a protected database used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff to compile a scathing report on the agency’s detention and interrogation program, prompting bipartisan outrage and at least two calls for spy chief John Brennan to resign.

“This is very, very serious, and I will tell you, as a member of the committee, someone who has great respect for the CIA, I am extremely disappointed in the actions of the agents of the CIA who carried out this breach of the committee’s computers,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, the committee’s vice chairman.

The rare display of bipartisan fury followed a three-hour private briefing by Inspector General David Buckley. His investigation revealed that five CIA employees, two lawyers and three information technology specialists improperly accessed or “caused access” to a database that only committee staff were permitted to use.

Buckley’s inquiry also determined that a CIA crimes report to the Justice Department alleging that the panel staff removed classified documents from a top-secret facility without authorization was based on “inaccurate information,” according to a summary of the findings prepared for the Senate and House intelligence committees and released by the CIA.

In other conclusions, Buckley found that CIA security officers conducted keyword searches of the emails of staffers of the committee’s Democratic majority — and reviewed some of them — and that the three CIA information technology specialists showed “a lack of candor” in interviews with Buckley’s office.

The inspector general’s summary did not say who may have ordered the intrusion or when senior CIA officials learned of it.

Following the briefing, some senators struggled to maintain their composure over what they saw as a violation of the constitutional separation of powers between an executive branch agency and its congressional overseers.

“We’re the only people watching these organizations, and if we can’t rely on the information that we’re given as being accurate, then it makes a mockery of the entire oversight function,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats.

The findings confirmed charges by the committee chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, that the CIA intruded into the database that by agreement was to be used by her staffers compiling the report on the harsh interrogation methods used by the agency on suspected terrorists held in secret overseas prisons under the George W. Bush administration.

The findings also contradicted Brennan’s denials of Feinstein’s allegations, prompting two panel members, Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, and Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, to demand that the spy chief resign.

Another committee member, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and some civil rights groups called for a fuller investigation. The demands clashed with a desire by President Barack Obama, other lawmakers and the CIA to move beyond the controversy over the “enhanced interrogation program” after Feinstein releases her committee’s report, which could come as soon as next week

Many members demanded that Brennan explain his earlier denial that the CIA had accessed the Senate committee database.

“Director Brennan should make a very public explanation and correction of what he said,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan. He all but accused the Justice Department of a cover-up by deciding not to pursue a criminal investigation into the CIA’s intrusion.

Buckley was joined by Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Andrew B. Willison, the chamber’s chief law enforcement officer, who has been looking into the alleged unauthorized removal of classified materials by the panel staff.

The meeting came two days after Brennan briefed Feinstein and Chambliss on Buckley’s conclusions and apologized to them for the improper intrusion into the database, CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said in a statement.

“The director … apologized to them for such actions by CIA officers as described in the OIG (Office of Inspector General) report,” he said.

Brennan will submit Buckley’s findings to an accountability board chaired by retired Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Boyd said.

“This board will review the OIG report, conduct interviews as needed, and provide the director with recommendations that, depending on its findings, could include potential disciplinary measures and/or steps to address systemic issues,” Boyd said.

Feinstein called Brennan’s apology and his decision to submit Buckley’s findings to the accountability board “positive first steps.”

“This IG report corrects the record and it is my understanding that a declassified report will be made available to the public shortly,” she said in a statement.

“The investigation confirmed what I said on the Senate floor in March — CIA personnel inappropriately searched Senate Intelligence Committee computers in violation of an agreement we had reached, and I believe in violation of the constitutional separation of powers,” she said.

It was not clear why Feinstein didn’t repeat her charges from March that the agency also may have broken the law and had sought to “thwart” her investigation into the CIA’s use of waterboarding, which simulates drowning, sleep deprivation and other harsh interrogation methods — tactics denounced by many experts as torture.

Buckley’s findings clashed with denials by Brennan that he issued only hours after Feinstein’s blistering Senate speech.

“As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s — that’s just beyond the — you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do,” he said in an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest issued a strong defense of Brennan, crediting him with playing an “instrumental role” in the administration’s fight against terrorism, in launching Buckley’s investigation and in looking for ways to prevent such occurrences in the future.

Earnest was asked at a news briefing whether there was a credibility issue for Brennan, given his forceful denial in March.

“Not at all,” he replied, adding that Brennan had suggested the inspector general’s investigation in the first place. And, he added, Brennan had taken the further step of appointing the accountability board to review the situation and the conduct of those accused of acting improperly to “ensure that they are properly held accountable for that conduct.”

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