WASHINGTON – The CIA's insistence that it did not spy on its Senate overseers collapsed Thursday with the release of a stark report by the agency's internal watchdog documenting improper computer surveillance and obstructionist behavior by CIA officers.
Five agency employees – two lawyers and three computer specialists – improperly accessed Senate intelligence committee computers earlier this year in a dispute over interrogation documents, according to a summary of a CIA inspector general report describing the results of an internal investigation. Then, despite CIA Director John Brennan ordering a halt to that operation, the CIA's office of security began an unauthorized investigation that led it to review the emails of Senate staffers and search them for key words.
After Senate leaders learned about the intrusion in January and objected, the CIA made a criminal referral to the Justice Department, alleging improper behavior by Senate staffers when they took the internal CIA review documents. That referral, CIA watchdog David Buckley found, was based on inaccurate information and was not justified.
Brennan also asked his agency's inspector general to examine whether the CIA committed wrongdoing. When internal investigators interviewed the three CIA computer specialists who helped access the Senate machines, they exhibited "a lack of candor," the IG report said, suggesting an attempt to cover up their actions.
Those internal conclusions prompted CIA Director Brennan to abandon months of defiance and defense of the agency and apologize to Senate Intelligence Committee leaders.
"The director said that wherever the investigation led, he would accept the findings and own up to them," said his spokesman, Dean Boyd.
Brennan has convened an internal accountability board chaired by former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., to examine whether any CIA officers should be disciplined. Furious Democrats demanded further investigation and a public accounting from Brennan. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., called for the director's resignation, citing "a tremendous failure of leadership."
At issue is a search by agency officers for information gathered in the course of a Senate investigation into the CIA's interrogation techniques. The search involved a penetration of the Senate portion of a shared, classified computer network at a Northern Virginia facility that was being used to provide Senate aides access to millions of CIA documents.
The fruits of the Senate's yearslong inquiry – an unclassified summary of a lengthy and classified report on post 9/11 detentions and interrogations that accuses the CIA of misconduct – is expected to be made public soon. It is expected to renew criticism contending that the U.S. engaged in torture as it questioned terrorism suspects after the 2001 attacks.
Thursday's CIA revelations came a day after The Associated Press reported on talking points generated by the State Department that embrace the report's conclusions that the interrogations were a dark chapter in American history.
As for the CIA's actions in regard to the Senate committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the panel, 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."
Said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a committee member: "What's needed now is a public apology from Director Brennan to staff and the committee, a full accounting of how this occurred and a commitment there will be no further attempts to undermine congressional oversight of CIA activities."
The CIA conducted its search after it began to suspect that Senate aides had obtained a draft internal review that the CIA believed the Senate was not entitled to see. The review included comments from CIA officers describing misgivings about the treatment of al-Qaida detainees.
As it turned out, the Senate staffers got the review thanks to a glitch in the CIA's firewall, several officials said.
The findings of the investigation by the CIA's inspector general were shared with the Justice Department, which has so far declined to pursue criminal charges, officials said.
The inspector general concluded "that some CIA employees acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding" about the shared computer network, Boyd said.
The CIA is generally forbidden from conducting operations on U.S. soil. One reason no criminal charges have been filed, said a Senate aide who was not authorized to be quoted, is that the Senate computers were on a CIA network subject to agency monitoring. But the CIA violated its agreement not to scrutinize the Senate side of the network.
A one-page summary of the inspector general's report, released by the CIA Thursday, does not say who ordered the search of Senate computers or who conducted it. It says that after an initial search, Brennan ordered the review to stop, but the CIA's office of security, unaware of his order, began searching Senate emails anyway. The Senate staff used the system to communicate about their investigation into what some call torture by CIA officers.
Part of the CIA's computer surveillance, officials on both sides said, involved creating a fake Senate account to review what documents Senate staffers had access to.
On Tuesday, Brennan informed Feinstein and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the senior Republican on the committee, "and apologized to them for such actions by CIA officers as described in the (inspector general's) report," Boyd said.
Until this week, the CIA director had dismissed the notion that the CIA had done anything wrong.
After Feinstein complained in March about the CIA's penetration of committee computers, Brennan said, "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 added, "We wouldn't do that."
By all accounts, the spying flap and the larger dispute over decade-old CIA practices have poisoned relations between Senate Democrats and the CIA.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest defended Brennan, pointing out that the CIA director "is the one who suggested that the inspector general investigate in the first place," and saying Brennan continued to have the president's confidence.
As for the talking-points document obtained by the AP, U.S. officials said Thursday they were unable to discuss it because the underlying Senate report that it discussed was still classified. But they did not explain how the talking points, which were explicitly marked "unclassified," could describe in such detail some parts of the still-classified report.
Under the government's "derivative classification" rules, information from a classified document remains classified whenever it is extracted, paraphrased or restated in a new form.