CIA admits it broke into Senate computers; Senators call for spy chief’s ouster
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-Ga., 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-Calif., 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-Colo., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., to demand that the spy chief resign.
“I have no choice but to call for the resignation of CIA Director John Brennan,” Udall said in a statement. “The CIA unconstitutionally spied on Congress by hacking into Senate Intelligence Committee computers. This grave misconduct not only is illegal, but it violates the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of separation of powers. These offenses, along with other errors in judgment by some at the CIA, demonstrate a tremendous failure of leadership, and there must be consequences.”
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-Mich. He all but accused the Justice Department of a coverup by deciding not to pursue a criminal investigation into the CIA’s intrusion.
“I thought there might have been information that was produced after the department reached their conclusion,” he said. “What I understand, they have all of the information which the IG has.”
He hinted that the scandal goes further than the individuals cited in Buckley’s report.
“I think it’s very clear that CIA people knew exactly what they were doing and either knew or should’ve known,” said Levin, adding that he thought that Buckley’s findings should be referred to the Justice Department.
A person with knowledge of the issue insisted that the CIA personnel who improperly accessed the database “acted in good faith,” believing that they were empowered to do so because they believed there had been a security violation.
“There was no malicious intent. They acted in good faith believing they had the legal standing to do so,” said the knowledgeable person, who asked not to be further identified because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly. “But it did not conform with the legal agreement reached with the Senate committee.”
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.”
The conciliatory tone of the CIA announcement and Feinstein’s statement sharply contrasted with the unprecedented battle that erupted over the issue between the spy agency and its congressional overseers and appears to represent attempts to ease what have been seriously icy relations.
In her Senate floor speech in March, Feinstein asserted that the CIA may have violated the law and the Constitution by monitoring her staff’s computers and blocking access to documents that had been placed in the protected database.
The allegations and the separate CIA charge that the committee staff removed classified documents from the secret CIA facility in Northern Virginia without authorization were referred to the Justice Department for investigation.
The department earlier this month announced that it had found insufficient evidence on which to proceed with criminal probes into either matter “at this time.” Thursday, Justice Department officials declined comment.
The CIA required the committee staff to use CIA computers in the top-secret agency facility to review more than 6 million pages of classified reports, emails and other documents related to the detention and interrogation program.
In January, Brennan confronted Feinstein behind closed doors over a committee request for top-secret material that the CIA determined the panel staff already had obtained.
He contended that her staff may have improperly accessed the material, which comprised an internal CIA review that Feinstein and other lawmakers contend verified the panel’s main finding that the agency’s use of the harsh interrogation methods failed to produce much valuable intelligence.
In her speech, Feinstein asserted that her staff found the material _ known as the Panetta review, after former CIA Director Leon Panetta, who ordered it _ in the protected database and that the CIA discovered the staff had it by monitoring its computers in violation of the user agreement.
The inspector general’s summary, which was prepared for the Senate and the House intelligence committees, didn’t identify the CIA personnel who had accessed the Senate’s protected database.
Furthermore, it said, the CIA crimes report to the Justice Department alleging that panel staffers had removed classified materials without permission was grounded on inaccurate information. The report is believed to have been sent by the CIA’s then acting general counsel, Robert Eatinger, who was a legal adviser to the interrogation program.
“The factual basis for the referral was not supported, as the author of the referral had been provided inaccurate information on which the letter was based,” said the summary, noting that the Justice Department decided not to pursue the issue.
Unaware that Brennan then halted an internal CIA inquiry into the allegation, the agency’s Office of Security “conducted a limited investigation” that included a keyword search of emails that the committee staff had sent over the CIA computer network established for its work, the summary said.
Some of the emails’ contents also were reviewed, it said.
The three information technology specialists “demonstrated a lack of candor” in interviews with Buckley’s office, it said, using a euphemism for lying.
The committee’s full report, which is being reviewed at the White House following a declassification process at the CIA, found that the use of the harsh interrogation techniques produced little valuable intelligence, according to classified conclusions obtained by McClatchy.
It also determined that the agency misled the Bush administration, Congress and the public on the interrogation program’s failure to produce much valuable intelligence, according to the conclusions.
Former Bush administration officials, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, the CIA and those who oversaw the program, which ran from 2001 until 2006, have vigorously disputed those findings. They’ve also insisted that the techniques were legal and didn’t constitute torture.
Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, criticized the CIA announcement, saying that “an apology isn’t enough.”
“The Justice Department must refer the (CIA) inspector general’s report to a federal prosecutor for a full investigation into any crimes by CIA personnel or contractors,” said Anders.
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.