CIA admits to spying on Senate

CIA officials improperly hacked the Senate Intelligence Committee’s computers as staffers compiled a report on “enhanced interrogation” techniques, the spy agency’s inspector general has concluded.

In a statement shared with The Hill, CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said the internal watchdog determined “that some CIA employees acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding” between the agency and the committee about access to the network they used to share documents. 

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CIA chief John Brennan told Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) about the findings “and apologized to them for such actions by CIA officers,” Boyd added.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a member of the committee, quickly retorted on Twitter that the watchdog’s report “shows John Brennan misled [the] public, whose interests I have championed."

“I will fight for change at the CIA,” he added. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), another member of the panel, called for Brennan to publicly apologize and give “a full accounting of how this occurred and a commitment there will be no further attempts to undermine congressional oversight of CIA activities,” he said in a statement.

The admission is a stunning turn of events in the standoff between the two bodies and directly contradicts Brennan’s earlier claims that the agency would never snoop on the committee’s computers.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Brennan said in March, soon after Feinstein raised allegations that CIA operatives had been unconstitutionally prying on her panel’s work. “We wouldn’t do that. That’s just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we’d do.” 

Feinstein claimed at the time that operatives had accessed a computer network established in 2009 for committee staff to review classified CIA materials related to the agency’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques, such as waterboarding. Those interrogation methods were authorized during the Bush administration but have since been prohibited. 

The documents were used to produce a classified 6,300-page study that reportedly shows the techniques were conducted more harshly and more commonly than was previously understood. The executive summary of the report is now being redacted for release to the public, possibly as soon as next month.

Feinstein on Thursday said that the search of her staff’s computers was “in violation of the constitutional separation of powers,” though she declined to pin the blame on Brennan.

“Director Brennan apologized for these actions and submitted the IG [inspector general’s] report to an accountability board,” she said in a brief statement. “These are 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.”

An unclassified summary of the inspector general’s report released on Thursday claimed that the five CIA employees – two lawyers and three information technology staffers – “improperly accesses or caused access” to the shared network. 

It also alleged that the three IT staffers “demonstrated a lack of candor about their activities” in interviews with the agency watchdog.

Tensions over the interrogations report have strained relations between the Senate panel and the CIA. Earlier this month, the Justice Department declined to take up criminal charges on either Feinstein’s charges or a rebuttal from the CIA that Senate staffers had improperly taken classified documents from a secure Virginia facility. 

To clear up the mistrust, Brennan has passed along the findings of the IG report to an accountability board chaired by former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who used to be a member of the Intelligence Committee.

“This board will review the [Office of the Inspector General’s] 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.

At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest gave a robust defense of Brennan. Asked if the hacking incident had hurt Brennan's standing as CIA director, Earnest responded: "Absolutely not."

"He has been candid about the inconsistencies that the IG found," Earnest said.

Earnest said Brennan appointed an accountability board to look into the matter further and has "taken all the responsible steps to address this situation. That's the kind of proactive leadership the president would expect."

Some members of the president's party, however, said it's time for new leadership at the CIA.

Udall said that blame for the incident lay with Brennan and his “apparent inability to find any flaws in the agency he leads.”

“From the unprecedented hacking of congressional staff computers and continued leaks undermining the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation of the CIA's detention and interrogation program to his abject failure to acknowledge any wrongdoing by the agency, I have lost confidence in John Brennan,” Udall added.

— Martin Matishak and Amie Parnes contributed.

This story was last updated at 4:35 p.m.

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