CIA Director John O. Brennan has apologized to leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee after an agency investigation determined that its employees improperly searched computers used by committee staff to review classified files on interrogations of prisoners.
The embarrassing admission by the agency follows a dispute that erupted earlier this year when the CIA and the committee traded accusations of snooping on one another, allegations that led to an extraordinary public feud between Brennan and senior lawmakers.
The conflict centered on computers that the CIA set up at a secret office in Northern Virginia to enable committee aides to examine records of the agency’s use of harsh interrogation measures on al-Qaeda suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
A statement released by the CIA on Tuesday acknowledged that agency employees had searched areas of that computer system that were supposed to be accessible only to committee investigators. Agency employees were attempting to discover how congressional aides had obtained a secret CIA internal report on the interrogation program.
“Some employees acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding reached” between the CIA and lawmakers in 2009, when the committee investigation was launched, according to the agency statement, which cited a review by the CIA’s inspector general. The CIA statement was first reported by the McClatchy news service.
That committee investigation is said to be sharply critical of the CIA, finding that it exaggerated the effectiveness of harsh interrogation measures and repeatedly misled members of Congress and the executive branch. The findings are expected to be released publicly within weeks.
After briefing committee leaders, Brennan “apologized to them for such actions by CIA officers as described in the [inspector general] report,” the agency statement said. Brennan also ordered the creation of an internal personnel board, led by former senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), to review the agency employees’ conduct and determine “potential disciplinary measures.”
Members of the Senate Intelligence Community expressed vindication but some also made clear that their animosity toward Brennan persists. One, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), said he had “lost confidence in John Brennan,” citing “the unprecedented hacking of congressional staff computers,” damaging leaks about the committee’s interrogation probe and Brennan’s “abject failure to acknowledge any wrongdoing by the agency.”
The CIA apology was in sharp contrast to the defiant position that Brennan had taken when the dispute first surfaced publicly in March. At the time, he warned that lawmakers would regret accusing the agency of wrongdoing. “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,” Brennan said.
Brennan was responding to accusations from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and others that the CIA had secretly removed documents from committee computers and attempted to intimidate investigators by requesting an FBI inquiry of their conduct.
Feinstein described the conflict as a “defining moment” for congressional oversight of spy agencies and cited concerns that the CIA had “violated the separation-of-powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution.”
On Thursday, Feinstein said she had been briefed by CIA Inspector General David Buckley and described Brennan’s apology and decision to convene a personnel board as “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.” Buckley is a former congressional aide.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Obama supports Brennan and disputed that the CIA director’s reversal on the clash with Congress had damaged his credibility. “Not at all,” Earnest said, noting that Brennan had initiated the inspector general review.
“He currently is operating in a very difficult environment to ensure the safety of the American public,” Earnest said. “He is somebody who has a very difficult job, who does that job extraordinarily well.”
The CIA statement indicated that the Justice Department has closed its inquiry after finding insufficient evidence to open a criminal probe. The Senate’s sergeant-at-arms, however, is still conducting a separate review.
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.
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