CIA Director Freaks Out After Senator Wyden Points Out How The CIA Spied On The Senate

from the not-so-cool-under-fire dept

If you're a CIA Director, one would assume that you know how to be cool under fire, right? Apparently that's not the case for current CIA Director John Brennan who seemed to completely freak out when Senator Ron Wyden started asking questions about the CIA's infamous decision to spy on the network and computers of Senate Intelligence Committee staffers who were compiling a report on the CIA's torture program. The details are a bit complex, but the short version is that the Intelligence Committee, which has oversight powers over the CIA, had been set up in a CIA building, with special access to CIA documents, and a special search tool. Apparently, at some point, that search tool returned a document which the CIA had never intended to share with the intelligence committee staffers. That document, called "the Panetta Review" was a draft document that then-CIA chief Leon Panetta had tasked people internal at the CIA to prepare on what the Senate Intelligence Committee staffers were likely to find as they went through the documents.

Yes, this is fairly meta. You had Senate staffers reviewing CIA documents, and at the same time, the CIA reviewing those same documents to try to get out ahead of any controversy -- and to make matters confusing, the Senate staffers then got access to that CIA review document as part of their regular searches. When the CIA was questioned about this Panetta review, they freaked out, wondering how the Senate staffers got their hands on the document, and did what the CIA does: they spied on the Senate staffers' computers and network to try to determine how they got the document in the first place. This was despite a promise from the CIA that the Senate staffers' computers and network were considered off-limits (due to an even earlier incident). That resulted in Senator Dianne Feinstein accusing the CIA of illegally spying on the Senate (its overseers). In response, Brennan first denied the spying altogether, and then insisted that it was the Senate staffers who broke the law, saying they illegally mishandled classified CIA documents in how they handled the Panetta Review.

Eventually, the DOJ decided that there wasn't enough evidence that either side broke the law, and refused to make any criminal charges either way. While both the CIA's Inspector General and a special review board Brennan himself set up found that the CIA did, in fact, spy on the Senate staffers' network and computers, and that this was inappropriate, neither seemed to say that it rose to a truly controversial level. Not surprisingly, the review board Brennan set up himself cleared him of wrongdoing.

Mixed in with all of this are remaining questions about how involved Brennan himself actually was in all of this (he refuses to say) and an ongoing request for an apology. While the CIA's Inspector General claimed that Brennan apologized for the breach, later reporting by Jason Leopold at Vice showed that Brennan had drafted an apology, but never sent it. Instead, he apparently provided a very narrow apology solely to Feinstein and then vice chair Saxby Chambliss, basically of the "I'm sorry if what did upset you" manner.

Given this, during a rare open Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Wyden decided to quiz Brennan about all of this, leading to a rather sarcastic and testy exchange that needs to be watched to be believed:
Immediately, Brennan gets snarky, noting that "This is the annual threat assessment, is it not? Yes?" implying that he doesn't think it's appropriate for Wyden to be bringing up this "other" topic in such a hearing. And it only gets worse from there. He immediately jumps to the argument, again, that it was the Senate staffers' fault for getting access to a document he didn't want them to see. He then says the CIA therefore had an "obligation" to find out how that happened. And then he, somewhat insultingly, suggests that Senator Wyden had not actually read the IG's account, or the report of the review panel that Brennan himself set up.

Wyden cuts him off, quoting directly from the report and notes that other agencies have all said it would be inappropriate to review Senate oversight computer systems, and asks Brennan if he disagrees. Brennan is clearly pissed off:
Brennan: Yes, I think you mischaracterize both their comments as well as what's in those reports. And I apologized to the Chairman and the Vice Chairman about the de minimis access and inappropriate access that CIA officers made to five emails or so of Senate staffers during that investigation. And I apologized to them for that very specific inappropriate action that was taken as part of a very reasonable investigative action. But do not say that we spied on Senate computers or files. We did not do that. We were fulfilling our responsibilities.

Wyden: I read the exact words of the Inspector General and the Review Board. You appointed the Review Board! They said nobody ought to be punished, but they said there was improper access. And my point is, in our system of government, we have responsibilities to do vigorous oversight. And we can't do vigorous oversight if there are improper procedures used to access our files.
Wyden then admits his time is up... but Brennan's so angry that he won't give up. He breaks all proper Senate hearing protocol and jumps back in, asking Wyden to say, again, that it was the Senate staffers' fault for accessing the Panetta Review:
Do you not agree there was improper access that senate staffers had to CIA internal deliberative documents? Was that not inappropriate or unauthorized?
Wyden angrily points out that everything the Senate staffers did was appropriate, and anyway, he's now asking about the CIA's activities, and points to the Inspector General review and the other review board... all the while with Brennan angrily shaking his head at Wyden. When Wyden finishes, Brennan goes back to being snarky, saying:
And I'm still awaiting the review that was done by the Senate to take a look at what the staffers actions were.
And then there's this:
Separation of powers between the executive, legislative branches, Senator, goes both ways.
In short: even if you have oversight over us, don't mess with the CIA, Senator. That's quite a statement.

He then goes on to again claim that Wyden is mischaracterizing everything, and that what the CIA did was entirely appropriate. Wyden concludes:
It's pretty hard to mischaracterize word for word quotes that use the words "improper access."
Indeed.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2016 @ 8:24pm

    How is this not insanely disturbing to people?

    How is it that books, tv shows, movies have all pointed out for decades just how shockingly disgusting a spy agency spying on its own government is?

    How are we as a society not crucifying the CIA on the proverbial cross for even daring to spy on a single American citizen let alone the Senators in charge of overseeing it?

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