WASHINGTON – The CIA acknowledged Thursday that its employees had secretly searched Senate computer files related to an investigation of the agency’s Bush-era harsh interrogation program, apologized to key senators and abandoned its previous insistence that it had done nothing wrong.
An investigation by the CIA’s inspector general found that 10 employees – including two attorneys and three technology staff members – were involved in the search, according to a declassified summary of his report, released Thursday. The inspector general said three employees had demonstrated “a lack of candor” in interviews.
CIA Director John Brennan apologized to Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and other committee leaders and is “committed to correcting any shortcomings” related to the incident, a spokesman for the spy agency said.
Brennan has created an “accountability board,” to be chaired by former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., that will review the inspector general’s findings and recommend disciplinary action, if necessary, spokesman Dean Boyd said.
Feinstein, in a statement, called the apology and creation of the accountability board “positive first steps.” Her restrained endorsement suggested that the conflict between the agency and its congressional overseers may continue.
Brennan’s admission was a remarkable reversal after a monthslong, highly unusual, public standoff with the intelligence panel. The move came after efforts by the White House to heal the breach between its CIA director and leading senators of the president’s party.
But whether the apology will calm the fight or inflame it remained unclear. At least two senators raised questions about Brennan’s continued tenure as the CIA’s chief. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the CIA’s actions “appalling,” saying in a statement that “the CIA’s leadership must take action to address these misdeeds, restore its trust with Congress and ensure that this episode will never, ever be repeated.”
The fight became public in March when Feinstein, in a speech on the Senate floor, charged that CIA employees had improperly hacked into a computer being used by Senate investigators. She accused the agency of violating “the constitutional separation of powers.”
At the time, Brennan denied any improper action.
The dispute grows out of a five-year investigation that the committee’s staff has conducted into whether the CIA tortured terrorism suspects during the Bush years and whether the agency’s interrogation practices actually yielded valuable intelligence, as officials had claimed. A portion of its report on that investigation, currently going through a lengthy declassification review, is expected to be released this month.
The Senate report is expected to be a harsh indictment of the grisly interrogation practices used at secret prisons. Officials who have seen the report say it concludes that the interrogations violated human rights and failed to yield information that made the country safer, according to officials who have seen it.
To allow the Senate investigators to have access to classified documents during their investigation, the CIA several years ago set up a computer system in Virginia. But the investigators believed the CIA had withheld a document they should have been given access to – an internal CIA review that was critical of the interrogation program. The investigators obtained the document. When CIA officials heard that the Senate had it, they searched the Senate computers to find proof.
Although CIA officials accused the Senate investigators of obtaining the document by improper methods, the inspector general concluded that charge was based on “inaccurate information,” according to the report of his investigation.