CIA director apologizes for search of Senate computers

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 04: Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan testifies during a hearing February 4, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) Getty Images

Last Updated Jul 31, 2014 5:29 PM EDT

WASHINGTON -- CIA Director John Brennan apologized to Senate intelligence committee leaders after his inspector general found that CIA employees acted improperly when the CIA searched Senate computers earlier this year.

Brennan has convened an internal accountability board chaired by former Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat, that will examine whether the CIA officers should be disciplined, said his spokesman, Dean Boyd.

The Justice Department has so far declined to pursue criminal charges against the employees, who searched Senate computers without permission for information gathered in the course of a Senate investigation into the CIA's interrogation techniques. The summary of a classified report on post-9/11 detentions and interrogations that accuses the CIA of misconduct is expected to be made public soon.

Five agency employees improperly accessed Senate computers in an effort to track down certain documents, the inspector general found. Then, after Brennan ordered a halt to the review, the CIA office of security began a "limited investigation" that led to surveillance of Senate emails, the report said.

Three information technology staff "demonstrated a lack of candor about their activities" in interviews with CIA investigators, the report said.

The CIA inspector general shared his findings with the Justice Department, which has so far declined to pursue criminal charges against the CIA employees, officials said.

The inspector general concluded "that some CIA employees acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding reached between" the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA in 2009 regarding access to a shared classified computer network, Boyd said. The shared network had been used by Senate aides to access classified files on CIA interrogations. The CIA penetration occurred after the aides got ahold of documents that the CIA claimed were internal, but which showed that some CIA officials shared misgivings about the treatment of al Qaida detainees.

Brennan informed Senate intelligence committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the senior Republican on the committee, "and apologized to them for such actions by CIA officers as described in the (inspector general's) report," Boyd said.

The apology was a turnabout for the CIA director, who until this week had dismissed the notion that the CIA did anything wrong.

After Feinstein complained about the CIA's penetration of committee computers, Brennan said, "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." He added, "CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn't do that."

By all accounts, the spying flap and the larger dispute over decade-old CIA practices have poisoned relations between Senate Democrats and the CIA.

Feinstein called the apology and the inspector's general report "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," Feinstein said in a statement.

But other Democrats on Thursday pressed Brennan to publicly apologize.

"I am concerned about the director's apparent inability to find any flaws in the agency he leads," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado. "I also believe the administration should appoint an independent counsel to look into what I believe could be the violation of multiple provisions of the Constitution as well as federal criminal statutes."

The development was the subject of wildly different characterizations by sources on either side of the dispute, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to go beyond official statements.

Senate aides familiar with the matter say the CIA used classified "hacking tools" and created a fake user account in an effort to retrieve documents the CIA believed the Senate staffers had improperly accessed.

A U.S. official familiar with the inspector general report disputed that hacking tools were used, and said that there was no malicious intent behind the CIA actions, but simply an effort to account for documents believed to have been improperly accessed.

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest defended Brennan, pointing out that the CIA director "is the one who suggested that the inspector general investigate in the first place" and saying Brennan continued to enjoy the president's confidence.

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