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.
The CIA spying-on-Congress scandal is providing cover for the SSCI’s partisan 6,300-page report on the Bush-era enhanced-interrogation program, a series of harsh techniques — including waterboarding — to force terrorist suspects to provide intelligence on planned terrorist attacks.
The enhanced-interrogation program has long divided Democrats, Republicans, and intelligence officials. Democratic officials — especially Barack Obama, when he was a presidential candidate, and former House speaker Nancy Pelosi — claimed this program was illegal and was never briefed to Congress. CIA and GOP defenders of this program adamantly deny this and have cited CIA records showing that Pelosi was briefed on it.
The main focus of the SSCI probe reportedly is to prove Democratic claims that the effectiveness of the enhanced-interrogation program has been exaggerated. Former CIA director Michael Hayden and other former senior CIA officials involved in the enhanced-interrogation program dispute this. According to Hayden, as late as 2006 fully half of the government’s knowledge about the structure and activities of al-Qaeda came from harsh interrogations.
Despite their firsthand knowledge of the enhanced-interrogation program, there is no input in the SSCI report from Hayden, former CIA general counsel John Rizzo, or other CIA officials, since the report is based solely on an examination of documents. Its Democratic-staff authors refused to interview any of the CIA players involved.
The CIA has been highly critical of the committee’s investigation and issued a 120-page rebuttal last year raising objections to many of its findings and cataloging dozens of errors. While the probe was originally approved on a bipartisan basis, Republican SSCI members later withdrew their support. As a result, committee minority staff members were barred from working with the majority on the investigation and from access to a secure room in a CIA building set up for the investigation. The committee’s Republican staffers were instead provided with a separate secure room to access enhanced-interrogation documents.
Partisan bickering in the SSCI over the probe also has interrupted the work of the committee over the last few months on important current issues such as Syria and the Iranian nuclear program.
The bias of the SSCI report, the committee’s refusal to interview CIA officials who approved and monitored the enhanced-interrogation program, and the removal of classified documents by SSCI Democratic staff members from a CIA building without authorization have resulted in a report that is a partisan travesty that represents misuse of congressional oversight and politicization of intelligence.
The SSCI submitted the 480-page executive summary to the CIA for declassification so it could be released to the public. After the CIA returned the summary to the SSCI on Friday, Feinstein delayed releasing it “until further notice” because the CIA’s redactions were so extensive. This could be another drawn-out battle as the SSCI negotiates with the CIA and the White House to declassified more language in the summary.
When the summary is released, the news media are certain to downplay the fact that the final report is a Democratic report with no Republican support and instead claim that it breaks new ground on CIA abuses. However, given other domestic and international challenges facing this country, I believe the report will get little traction with the American public.
On the other hand, I believe the SSCI probe and its partisan final report will be taken very seriously by U.S intelligence agencies and will hurt Congress’s relationship with them, possibly by making intelligence agencies and officers less willing to cooperate with congressional oversight.
While I believe the SSCI probe is a partisan embarrassment, there is still an urgent need for CIA accountability in this affair.
The CIA’s response to the SSCI staff’s removing of classified documents from a CIA facility was incredibly reckless and needlessly jeopardized its relations with Senator Feinstein, one of the U.S. intelligence community’s few strong Democratic supporters in Congress. CIA director Brennan’s clumsy and arrogant comments made matters worse and have led to bipartisan calls for his resignation.
The CIA needs a partnership with Congress and the support of key members such as Feinstein to do its important work to protect our nation from new and emerging threats. It also must defend itself from a new wave of criticism against U.S. intelligence agencies by Americans worried about government secrecy and by some who do not understand the urgent need for the United States to maintain a robust foreign-intelligence capability to protect our nation in a dangerous world.
For these reasons, I believe CIA director John Brennan and agency officials involved in the monitoring of computers used by the SSCI staff must resign to help mend the CIA’s relationship with Congress. Such resignations would go a long way toward restoring the confidence of the SSCI in the CIA and, it is to be hoped, would win the agency and the National Security Agency some crucial allies in both houses of Congress to fend off several ill-advised intelligence-reform proposals currently under discussion there.
Although no laws were broken in the CIA’s monitoring of computers used by SSCI staff members, and statements by Director Brennan about this matter may have been accurate, this scandal is a CIA self-inflicted wound that Brennan made worse. For the good of the country and the CIA’s national-security mission, Brennan must go.
— Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst and House Intelligence Committee staff member, is a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy and chief analyst with LIGNET.com.