WASHINGTON – CIA employees improperly searched computers used by Senate investigators involved in a multiyear probe of the agency’s use of harsh interrogation measures on terrorism suspects, according to the findings of an internal agency inquiry that prompted CIA Director John Brennan to apologize to lawmakers this week.
The embarrassing admission by the agency stems from a dispute that erupted in public this year when the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee traded accusations of illicit spying and security breaches – allegations that led to an extraordinary feud between Brennan and the Senate panel, which oversees his agency.
The conflict centered on special computer network that the CIA set up at a secret office in Northern Virginia to enable committee aides to examine the agency’s internal records of its interrogation program, which involved the use of waterboarding and other brutal techniques before President Barack Obama shut it down in 2009.
A summary of the CIA inspector general’s report obtained by the Washington Post cited 10 agency employees, including two lawyers and three computer specialists, who had searched the committee’s files and read some of the staff’s emails on computers that were supposed to be exclusively for committee investigators.
The document also criticizes the computer team members for a lack of candor about their activities when they were questioned by investigators working for CIA Inspector General David Buckley.
The development comes as the CIA is bracing for the long-awaited release of a committee report that is said to be sharply critical of the agency, finding that it exaggerated the effectiveness of interrogation measures and repeatedly misled members of Congress and the executive branch. The report is expected to be released within weeks.
After briefing committee leaders, Brennan apologized to them for such actions by CIA officers as described in the (inspector general’s) report, the agency’s statement said. Brennan also ordered the creation of an internal personnel board, led by former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., to review the agency employees’ conduct and determine potential disciplinary measures.
Members of the Senate Intelligence Community expressed vindication but some made clear that their animosity toward Brennan persists.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., called for Brennan’s resignation. He said he had lost confidence in the director, citing the unprecedented hacking of congressional staff computers, damaging leaks about the committee’s interrogation probe and Brennan’s abject failure to acknowledge any wrongdoing by the agency.
Brennan’s apology to lawmakers was in sharp contrast to the defiant position he took when the dispute first surfaced publicly in March. At the time, he warned that lawmakers would regret accusing the agency of wrongdoing.
When the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong, he said.
Brennan was responding to accusations from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and others that the CIA had secretly removed documents from committee computers and attempted to intimidate investigators by requesting an FBI inquiry of their conduct.
Feinstein, D-Calif., described the conflict as a defining moment for congressional oversight of spy agencies and cited concerns that the CIA had violated the separation-of-powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution.