CIA director John Brennan did the right thing Thursday in apologizing to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) for CIA monitoring of computers being used by the committee’s staff for an investigation of the Bush-era enhanced-interrogation program. Nevertheless, heads must roll at the CIA over this scandal, including Brennan’s.
While what the CIA did was not illegal, its actions were the result of reckless decisions by agency officials in response to misconduct by SSCI staff members. The CIA should have handled this matter by raising it quietly with SSCI chairwoman Dianne Feinstein. The agency didn’t need another scandal at a time when all U.S. intelligence agencies were under fire in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks.
Brennan’s apology has been seized upon by members of Congress to make hysterical claims that the CIA spied on U.S. senators and is out of control. News reports of this controversy have been wildly inaccurate and have accused the CIA of spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee because the agency was opposed to the SSCI’s enhanced-interrogation investigation.
Unfortunately, this scandal is distracting attention from a more serious issue: how the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2014 was still working on a partisan $50 million probe of the Bush administration. The news media and Congress should be focused on the fact that this is a pointless and wasteful investigation and not on a scandal that the CIA inflicted on itself.
Contrary to media reports that Brennan apologized for CIA spying on “the Hill” or U.S. senators, this controversy concerns CIA personnel monitoring CIA computers in a CIA building that were being used by Senate staff members. The CIA did not spy on Senate-owned computers, Senate offices, or members of the Senate. The computers were made available by the CIA for the SSCI staff to review millions of classified documents related to the enhanced-interrogation program.
CIA officials decided to audit the computers being used by the SSCI staff after the agency determined that staff members violated an agreement on access to the computers by obtaining documents they were not supposed to have and removing them from a CIA facility without authorization. The CIA also made a referral to the Justice Department over the staff’s actions.
The CIA’s relations with Congress sank to their lowest level in many years after this story broke. Feinstein said in a speech on the Senate floor that the agency’s actions may have violated the separation-of-powers clause of the Constitution and the Fourth Amendment. Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) said after the incident: “I think I perceive fear of an intelligence community drunk with power, unrepentant and uninclined to relinquish power.” Representative Darryl Issa (R., Calif.) accused the CIA of possible treason.
The CIA responded to this uproar by initiating an Inspector General investigation into the actions of CIA personnel but not SSCI staff. The agency also made a second referral to the Justice Department on the conduct of its personnel. The Senate Intelligence Committee asked the Senate sergeant-at-arms to investigate the actions of the SSCI staff. This investigation is still underway.
The Justice Department closed its investigation July 9 after finding insufficient evidence that either side had committed a crime.
Brennan didn’t help himself last May when he vigorously denied that the CIA had hacked Senate computers, saying, “Nothing could be further from the truth.” While Brennan’s comments may have been technically correct, he should have avoided making any statements on this issue until the conclusion of the CIA IG investigation. Brennan’s comments inflamed this controversy and have been seized upon by several senators to accuse him of lying and to call for his resignation.
Brennan’s apology came after the release of a CIA Inspector General report that found agency personnel “improperly accessed or caused access to the SSCI Majority staff shared drives on the RDINet.” RDINet (Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation Network) is a computer system set up at a CIA facility for the SSCI’s enhanced-interrogation investigation. An unclassified summary of the CIA IG report can be found here.
There apparently are other, more embarrassing findings in the IG report. The report’s summary said that a crimes report the CIA sent to the Justice Department on the SSCI staff’s action “was not supported,” because “the author of the referral had been provided inaccurate information on which the letter was based.” The IG report also said the CIA had searched SSCI staff e-mail accounts on the RDINet system (probably classified e-mail accounts with no access to the Internet) and accused three CIA IT staff members of a lack of candor about their activities during the IG probe.
Classified elements of the IG report have already been leaked to the press — probably by a senator on the Intelligence Committee — and include reports that the CIA used false identities to access the SSCI computers and took screen shots.
CIA management responded to the IG report by announcing the formation of an internal accountability board to be chaired by former senator Evan Bayh (D., Ind.) to determine whether any CIA officers should be disciplined over this incident.