CIA board breaks with watchdog, clears agency of spying on Senate

In a break with its former inspector general and overseers on Capitol Hill, a CIA accountability board has determined that agency officials did not wrongly spy on the Senate early last year.

Instead, the board — which was tapped to intervene in an escalating standoff between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee last summer — determined that the spy agency staffers were in the right to access Senate files on a shared network after believing that a security breach may have occurred.

Senate staffers “were or should have been aware” that the agency occasionally monitored their use of the network, the board said in a 38-page report released on Wednesday, because of previous “discoveries of [committee] staffers’ misconduct” on the system. In 2009 and 2010, the board said, Senate staffers had tried to bring a camera into a secure facility and skirt the CIA’s rules to print a secret document from the shared network. 

All Senate staffers who logged into the shared network saw a warning that their “use of this system may be monitored and you have no expectation of privacy,” the report pointed out.

The new conclusion adds another twist to the long-simmering standoff between the nation’s foremost spies and their congressional watchers, which has centered around the Senate panel’s production of a scathing report on the CIA’s former use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques.

While Senate staffers were working to compile that report in recent years, they came across an internal CIA analysis that had been prepared by former agency Director Leon Panetta. The committee was previously unaware of the report and the CIA had no intention of handing it over, claiming that it was merely a part of its internal deliberations.

In a fiery speech on the Senate floor last year, Feinstein accused CIA staffers of illegally breaking into her committee’s computers in order to retrieve the report and discover how it had made its way into the panel’s hands. The agency’s inspector general, who resigned earlier this month, said in July that the agency had “improperly accessed” the Senate computers.

The news led to intense scrutiny of the secretive spy agency and prompted calls for CIA Director John Brennan to resign.

In response, Brennan selected former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) — a former member of the Intelligence Committee — to lead an accountability board and clear up the mistrust.

Because there was no formal agreement between the CIA and the Senate on how proceed in the case of a suspected security breach, the agency followed normal protocol, the board concluded.

“The board found that no discipline was warranted for the five CIA personnel under review because they acted reasonably under the complex and unprecedented circumstances involved in investigating a potential security breach in the highly classified shared computer network,” Bayh said in a statement.

According to the board’s report, the five staffers gained access to the Senate files during three separate “looks” over the course of several days last January.

To prevent future confusion, the board suggested that the agency create written agreements with outside agencies about how it will investigate suspected security failures in shared systems, among other steps. The CIA agreed to those suggestions, it said. 

Concurrent with the release of the accountability board review, the spy agency on Wednesday also released the full redacted inspector general’s report about the incident. Previously, the agency had only released a one-page summary of that report.

In a statement after the report was released, Feinstein pointed to a portion that found that one of the CIA’s “looks” resulted in “inappropriate” access to five Senate staffer emails, and claimed that her position had not changed.

“I continue to believe CIA’s actions constituted a violation of the constitutional separation of powers,” she said.

“I’m thankful that Director [John] Brennan has apologized for these actions, but I’m disappointed that no one at the CIA will be held accountable,” she added. “The decision was made to search committee computers, and someone should be found responsible for those actions."