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Saturday, July 13, 2024 | Back issues
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CIA Board Clears Agents of Spying on Senate

(CN) - None of the five CIA agents who accessed the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee's computers should be disciplined for their actions, a panel investigating the incident said Wednesday.

An agency accountability board commissioned by CIA Director John Brennan this past August made the unanimous findings in mid-December, along with "systemic recommendations" of how to avoid a potential conflict between two branches of government in the future. The report was released publicly on Wednesday.

The recommendations stem from the penetration of a computer network used by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee while preparing its report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program during the Bush administration. Three of the agency's IT officers and two of its lawyers carried out the spying, which came to light in early 2014.

The CIA officers believed that the committee's staff had accessed a secret internal review of the detention program, and penetrated the Senate computers to verify their belief.

Brennan admitted that his agency's officers had spied on the Intelligence Committee's computers in August - and tasked former Democratic senator Evan Bayh of Indiana with leading the internal accountability board.

That panel, which also included former White House Counsel Bob Bauer and three senior CIA officers, found that the five CIA officers - who have not been identified - "acted reasonably under the complex and unprecedented circumstances involved in investigating a potential security breach in the highly classified shared computer network, while also striving to maintain the sanctity of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee's work product."

In a statement, Bayh noted that the CIA and the Senate lacked any formal agreement or understanding of what procedures should be followed while investigating a potential security breach. But he also acknowledged that the officers acted "inappropriately" by reading the committee's emails.

"It was a mistake that did not reflect malfeasance, bad faith, or the intention to gain improper access to SSCI confidential, deliberative material," Bayh said. "None of the five individuals under review by the board was responsible for this mistake, and two of them, the most senior, had expressly counseled that care be taken to avoid accessing SSCI work product."

The panel also found no evidence that the CIA officers "exhibited a lack of candor" during the CIA inspector general's investigation of the incident.

For the future, the panel advised that any time two independent branches of government share a computer network, they need to have a formal agreement governing access to the network - and how potential security issues will be handled. It also suggested getting the CIA's office of Congressional affairs involved at the first sign of trouble.

"It is my sincere hope that implementation of these recommendations will prevent future instances of the miscommunication and confusion that led to the controversy under review," Bayh said. "A strong commitment to the separation of powers and vigorous bi-partisan oversight by Senate Select Intelligence Committee is essential to our democracy."

The panel's report on partially satisfied Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who had excoriated the CIA and Brennan when news of the spying came to light.

"Let me be clear: I continue to believe CIA's actions constituted a violation of the constitutional separation of powers and unfortunately led to the CIA's referral of unsubstantiated criminal charges to the Justice Department against committee staff," Feinstein said in a statement.

"I'm thankful that Director Brennan has apologized for these actions, but I'm disappointed that no one at the CIA will be held accountable," she added. "The decision was made to search committee computers, and someone should be found responsible for those actions."

The Senate Intelligence Committee is still reviewing the report, Feinstein said.

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