CIA Says 'Oops. Sorry.' Capitulates on Intelligence Committee Spying Probe

Director of U.S. National Intelligence James Clapper, right, and CIA Director John Brennan confer before testifying at the House Intelligence Committee Gary Cameron/Reuters

Now they say they're sorry. But last spring CIA Director John Brennan and his aides were telling anyone who would listen that the agency's sleuths were justified in spying on Senate Intelligence Committee staffers investigating the CIA's detention and interrogation program because they had "stolen" privileged documents.

Indeed, in a private letter to Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein back in January, Brennan said he was "concerned that there may have been a breach … in the system for housing highly classified documents," in particular relating to what the panel's staffers had unearthed about his predecessor Leon Panetta's knowledge of excesses in the interrogation program. Suggesting that the staffers might have committed a crime, Brennan referred the matter to the Justice Department for investigation, provoking a thunderous denunciation on the Senate floor by the panel's chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Yesterday, however, Brennan was up on Capitol Hill hat in hand, apologizing to Feinstein and her Republican counterpart, committee Vice-Chair Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). The CIA's inspector general, it turned out, had concluded that the agency's sleuths had gone too far. "Some CIA employees," the IG found, according to CIA spokesman Dean Boyd, "acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding reached between SSCI (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) and the CIA in 2009." Brennan, Boyd said, personally apologized to Feinstein and Chambliss "for such actions by CIA officers as described in the OIG (Office of Inspector General Report)."

The vehemence of CIA denials last spring leaves open the possibility that Brannan and his aides were misled by their subordinates, in which case there could be blood on the floor when further investigations are conducted.

According to an unclassified summary of the inspector general's report, "five Agency employees, two attorneys and three information technology (IT) staff members, improperly accessed or caused access to" Senate Intelligence Committe hard drives on the shared computer network set up by the CIA to screen documents it was providing to the Senate investigators.

"The three IT staff members demonstrated a lack of candor about their activities during interviews by the OIG," said the summary, which was obtained by Reuters reporter Mark Hosenball.

Boyd said the agency was setting up an "accountability board," to be led by retired Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"This board will review the OIG report, conduct interviews as needed, and provide the director with recommendations that, depending on its findings, could include potential disciplinary measures and/or steps to address systemic issues," Boyd said.

The kerfuffle is only the latest chapter in a long and often sulfurous struggle over the committee's investigation of the CIA's so-called rendition, detention and interrogation program. An impending release of a summary of the report is expected to show that the agency officials withheld key details on what its operatives were doing and exaggerated their successes. According to the New York Times, former CIA Director George Tenet, who led the agency at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and other former agency officials have been furiously lobbying behind the scenes to refute the committee's findings.

Jeff Stein writes Spytalk from Washington. He can be reached confidentially via spytalk(at)