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CIA to Senate: Whoops, We Actually Did Break Into Your Computers

CIA to Senate: Whoops, We Actually Did Break Into Your Computers

This story has been updated.

"Nothing could be further from the truth." That was CIA Director John Brennan’s response in March when confronted with allegations that the agency had spied on Senate staffers assembling a report on Bush-era detention and interrogation policies. "I mean we wouldn’t do that. I mean that’s just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do," Brennan added before the Council on Foreign Relations.

Four months later, Brennan is singing a very different tune. According to a statement issued Thursday, July 31, an internal CIA investigation has found that agency employees did in fact gain inappropriate access to a computer network that was used by Senate staffers to study the millions of pages of documents used to compile their report, which is said to conclude that the agency’s use of waterboarding and other brutal interrogation techniques failed to produce any valuable or actionable intelligence. According to the statement, Brennan has apologized to Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss, the chairwoman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

In a statement, Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who has emerged as an ardent critic of the intelligence community, blasted Brennan’s efforts to defend the agency and called on him to publicly apologize. "The CIA Inspector General has confirmed what Senators have been saying all along: The CIA conducted an unauthorized search of Senate files, and attempted to have Senate staff prosecuted for doing their jobs," Wyden said. "Director Brennan’s claims to the contrary were simply not true."

Still, the statement released by the CIA Thursday renders the admission in the vaguest terms possible, noting only that Brennan "was briefed" on the findings by the CIA’s inspector general, David Buckley, and that "some CIA employees acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding" reached between the agency and the Senate Intelligence Committee to govern access to documents related to the detention and interrogation program.

The comments come at a particularly sensitive time for the agency, which is bracing for the public release of the summary of the Senate report. The White House is expected to declassify the document within the next few days, a move that will reignite the long-simmering debate over whether the CIA’s brutal interrogation methods crossed the line into torture.

The dispute between the CIA and the Senate centers on how committee staffers were able to obtain access to documents that the agency believes they had not been cleared to read. In a blistering speech on the Senate floor in March, Feinstein accused the CIA of spying on her staffers and removing sensitive documents from their computers. Feinstein further alleged that the CIA had attempted to intimidate her staffers by threatening them with criminal charges. The comments were particularly striking coming from Feinstein, who has long been one of the spy agency’s primary advocates and defenders.

"I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate," Feinstein said on the Senate floor at the time. "I have received neither." On Thursday, Feinstein welcomed in a statement the CIA’s admission and called Brennan’s apology and the report "positive first steps," adding that she expects a declassified version of the report to be made public soon.

The documents in question have been described as an audit of the detention program. According to the CIA, the documents were created after that program ended. As a result, they fall outside the scope of the committee’s inquiry. Feinstein and her investigators of course disagree with that assessment.

But Thursday’s statement sheds little light on the conclusions of the CIA’s investigation and whether its inspector general found evidence to back Feinstein’s charges. The Senate sergeant-at-arms is conducting a separate investigation into the incident. That investigation is still ongoing. The Justice Department said earlier this year that the imbroglio would not result in criminal charges.

Brennan is now promising a measure of accountability at the agency, announcing the formation of an "accountability board" to be chaired by former Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat and a former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Bayh will review the inspector general’s report, "conduct interviews as needed," and, depending on his findings, will provide Brennan with recommendations on "potential disciplinary measures and/or steps to address systemic issues."