TIME intelligence

CIA Apologizes for Snooping on Senate Staff Computers

CIA Director John Brennan speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on March 11, 2014.
CIA director John Brennan speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., on March 11, 2014 Carolyn Kaster—AP

In a dramatic reversal from the agency's earlier position

Updated at 3:24 p.m.

A report from the CIA’s inspector general faulted agency employees for improperly accessing Senate staffers’ computers during an investigation into Bush-era CIA interrogation practices.

The report, released Thursday by the agency’s Office of the Inspector General, represents an admission that CIA employees improperly accessed computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff to review top secret documents as part of a probe into harsh interrogation practices. Staffers were given access to special computers in a neutral facility with access to documents through a closed CIA network. By agreement, the agency was not supposed to have access to the computers used by Senate staff in the facility — an agreement the agency violated, according to the inspector general’s report.

In a reversal of his previous public comments on the matter, CIA director John Brennan apologized for the overreach.

“The Director subsequently informed the SSCI Chairman and Vice Chairman of the findings and apologized to them for such actions by CIA officers as described in the OIG report,” CIA spokesperson Preston Golson said in a statement. According to the statement, Brennan will form an “Accountability Board” to review the report’s findings and make recommendations, which “could include potential disciplinary measures and/or steps to address systemic issues.”

The report is a vindication for Intelligence Committee chairperson Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein sent shockwaves through Washington with a long tirade on the Senate floor in March lambasting the CIA for accessing Intelligence Committee staffers’ computers.

“Heads should roll, people should go to jail, if it’s true,” said Feinstein in her speech. At the time, Brennan strongly defended the agency against Feinstein’s allegations.

Feinstein struck a conciliatory tone in remarks regarding the report Thursday.

“The investigation confirmed what I said on the Senate floor in March — CIA personnel inappropriately searched Senate Intelligence Committee computers in violation of an agreement we had reached, and I believe in violation of the constitutional separation of powers,” Feinstein said. “Director Brennan apologized for these actions and submitted the IG report to an accountability board. 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.”

The White House offered a vigorous defense of director Brennan’s role at the helm of the CIA.

“The fact of the matter is, director Brennan is somebody who over the course of the last five and a half years has played an instrumental role in helping the President make the kinds of decisions … that have decimated the leadership of core al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he currently is operating in a very difficult environment to ensure the safety of the American public,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday. “He is somebody who has a very difficult job, who does that job extraordinary well.”

The Justice Department announced earlier this month it would not launch a criminal probe into Feinstein’s allegations. A Senate investigation into the incident is ongoing.

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