The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, issued an extraordinary apology to leaders of the US Senate intelligence committee on Thursday, conceding that the agency employees spied on committee staff and reversing months of furious and public denials.
Brennan acknowledged that an internal investigation had found agency security personnel transgressed a firewall set up on a CIA network, which allowed Senate committee investigators to review agency documents for their landmark inquiry into CIA torture.
Among other things, it was revealed that agency officials conducted keyword searches and email searches on committee staff while they used the network.
The admission brings Brennan’s already rocky tenure at the head of the CIA under renewed question. One senator on the panel said he had lost confidence in the director, although the White House indicated its support for a man who has been one of Barack Obama’s most trusted security aides.
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd acknowledged that agency staff had improperly monitored the computers of committee staff members, who were using a network the agency had set up, called RDINet. “Some CIA employees acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding reached between [the committee] and the CIA in 2009 regarding access to the RDINet,” he said.
Asked if Brennan had or would offer his resignation, a different CIA spokesman, Ryan Trapani, replied: “No.”
In March, the committee chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, accused the agency of violating constitutional boundaries by spying on the Senate.
Feinstein said the vindication, from CIA inspector general David Buckley, and Brennan’s apology were “positive first steps,” suggesting that the director had further work to do before she would consider the matter closed.
She stopped short of calling for Brennan’s resignation. But her committee colleague, Democrat Mark Udall of Colorado, said Brennan should go. “I have no choice but to call for the resignation of CIA director John Brennan,” Udall said after a briefing on the inspector general’s findings.
“The CIA unconstitutionally spied on Congress by hacking into Senate intelligence committee computers. This grave misconduct is not only illegal, but it violates the US 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.
Boyd, the CIA spokesman, said Brennan has asked a former committee member, Evan Bayh, a former Indiana Democratic senator, to lead an “accountability board” reviewing Buckley’s report and to advise Brennan on next steps.
That advice, Boyd said, “could include potential disciplinary measures and/or steps to address systemic issues.”
Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a longtime observer of the CIA, called its Thursday statement a “conciliatory gesture” to the committee’s leaders. “If Senator Feinstein is satisfied with the apology then the affair is effectively over. If she contends there was a fundamental breach that cannot be corrected with a mere apology then some further action might be needed,” Aftergood said.
McClatchy first reported the apology on Thursday.
Feinstein, in her dramatic speech on the Senate floor in March, said the agency breached the firewall to obstruct the committee’s investigation of the agency’s torture of post-9/11 terrorism detainees, a years-long effort expected to be partially declassified in the coming days or weeks. That investigation was itself prompted by a different coverup: the destruction of videotapes of brutal interrogations by a senior official, Jose Rodriguez.
Despite that, the committee has concluded that the torture was an ineffective means of gathering intelligence on al-Qaida – contradicting years of CIA assurances it was crucial – and that the agency lied to its overseers about its value.
Brennan, a confidante of Barack Obama and a senior agency official when the “rendition, detention and interrogation” program was established, immediately denied that his officials had spied on their overseers.
“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 just beyond the – you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do,” Brennan said on the day of Feinstein’s accusation.
“If I did something wrong,” Brennan continued in March, “I will go to the president, and I will explain to him exactly what I did, and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest credited Brennan with “proactive leadership” for appointing the Bayh-led board, an indication that Obama is not abandoning the man who, until March 2013, was his most senior counterterrorism aide.
According to an unclassified summary of the CIA inspector general’s findings released late on Thursday, two agency attorneys and three technical staff members “improperly accessed or caused access” to the firewalled portions of the network that the committee staffers used. None was named. The three technicians “demonstrated a lack of candor about their activities during interviews.”
Among other measures, the agency officials “conducted a keyword search of all and and a review of some of the emails” that committee staffers sent over the CIA-established network. Brennan was said not to know of the action, which occurred after he ordered an end to the surreptitious monitoring.
The inspector general additionally found that a CIA claim that the committee staff improperly accessed certain agency data on the network was the result of “inaccurate information.”
The Obama administration has walked a delicate line over the torture report. Obama has insisted its prompt and thorough declassification – which has taken nearly four months – is a priority. Yet he appointed the CIA itself as the lead agency to determine what aspects of a report directly implicating CIA activities the public can see.
Even before he was sworn in, Obama disappointed civil-liberties supporters by indicating his disinclination to prosecuting agency and ex-Bush administration officials who ordered and implemented the torture program. In 2012, a special prosecutor ended an inquiry without bringing charges. Only one man, a former CIA contractor named David Passaro, has gone to jail in connection to the CIA’s post-9/11 torture.
Brennan’s apology also complicates a developing CIA pushback against a report that agency officials, current and former, consider shoddy. George Tenet, the former director whom Brennan served and who oversaw the brutal practices – where suspected terrorists were subjected to simulated drowning, had guns fired by their heads, were kept in undisclosed prisons for years and were sent to countries like Gadhafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria for even more abusive treatment – is said to be developing a public strategy to attack the committee once the report is released.
The agency, consistent with a pattern that has held since 9/11, appears out of danger from criminal liability. Earlier this month, a Justice Department probe, also first reported by McClatchy, declined to pursue an investigation into Feinstein’s now-vindicated charges.