Wyden hammers CIA chief over Senate spying

Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenOvernight Healthcare: Watchdog says ObamaCare program made illegal payments Election-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Overnight Tech: TV box plan faces crucial vote | Trump transition team to meet tech groups | Growing scrutiny of Yahoo security MORE (D-Ore.) on Tuesday berated CIA Director John Brennan for his failure to acknowledge the agency’s spying on Senate staffers.

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“When you’re talking about spying on a committee responsible for overseeing your agency, in my view that undermines the very checks and balances that protect our democracy and it’s unacceptable in a free society,” Wyden said during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on global threats.

Brennan pushed back on Wyden’s characterization of the 2014 incident as “spying” and the two exchanged testy words.

“Do not say that we spied on Senate computers or your files. We did not do that,” Brennan said.

“I read the exact words of the Inspector General and the exact words of the review board,” Wyden replied. “They said there was improper access.”

As the clock was winding down on Wyden’s allotted time for questions, Brennan claimed that he mischaracterized the content of the pair of reports detailing the investigation into the incident.

“Pretty hard to mischaracterize a word-for-word quote, they used the word ‘improper access,’” Wyden said as committee chair Richard BurrRichard BurrDem groups invest big in Bayh in Ind. Senate race The Trail 2016: Fight night Poll finds races for president, Senate tight in North Carolina MORE (R-N.C.) attempted to shift the discussion to another senator.

The tense exchange was the latest skirmish in a long-running battle between lawmakers and the agency after Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinElection-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Senators already eyeing changes to 9/11 bill after veto override WH tried to stop Intel Dems' statement on Russian hacking: report MORE (D-Calif.) revealed in March 2014 that CIA staff had broken into and searched Senate files in a walled-off computer that the agency and the Intelligence Committee were using to share documents as part of the committee’s research for its report on the CIA's former torture techniques.

The agency's inspector general found in mid-2014 that five agency employees had "improperly accessed" the Senate network. Early last year, a CIA accountability board convened by Brennan determined that the staffers acted within their rights when they searched the Senate network.

“These were CIA computers at a CIA-leased facility, it was a CIA network shared between Senate staffers conducting that investigation for your report as well as CIA personnel,” Brennan said Tuesday. He repeatedly characterized the improper access as “very limited.”

He suggested that it was in fact the Senate staffers’ access of the files that was inappropriate.

“When it became quite obvious to CIA personnel that Senate staffers had unauthorized access to an internal draft document of the CIA, there was an obligation of CIA officers to investigate to see what might have been the reason for the access,” Brennan said.

“Separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches, senator, goes both ways,” he said later in the exchange.

Brennan has apologized privately, to Feinstein and then-Sen. Saxby ChamblissSaxby ChamblissWyden hammers CIA chief over Senate spying Cruz is a liability Inside Paul Ryan’s brain trust MORE (R-Ga.), the committee's ranking member, in the wake of the CIA's IG report.

Wyden’s comments echo a letter he sent to President Obama last month, along with Sens. Martin HeinrichMartin HeinrichElection-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables New thinking on old tech for a secure future Dem senators back Navajo lawsuit against EPA MORE (D-N.M.) and Mazie HironoMazie HironoOvernight Finance: Lawmakers float criminal charges for Wells Fargo chief | Scrutiny on Trump's Cuba dealings | Ryan warns of recession if no tax reform Anti-trade senators say chamber would be crazy to pass TPP Overnight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas MORE (D-Hawaii), asking that Brennan be required to apologize for the search of Senate files.  

“We believe that it is necessary for you to address this matter directly," the senators wrote.