CIA Director John Brennan departs after a closed briefing with the Senate Intelligence Committee, on September 9, 2014.

CIA Director John Brennan departs after a closed briefing with the Senate Intelligence Committee, on September 9, 2014. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

CIA Review Clears Its Spies of Wrongdoing in Senate Hack

An accountability board attributed the CIA's spying on Senate networks to a 'miscommunication,' contradicting previous statements from the agency. By Dustin Volz and Lauren Fox

A CIA review panel announced Wednesday it had cleared the spy agency of wrongdoing in a case involving its search of computers used by Senate staffers to review the agency's Bush-era "enhanced interrogation" program.

The accountability board found that a miscommunication, and not an intentional breach of an agreement, was largely to blame for the incident that erupted into public light last year and prompted some senators, including then-Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, to accuse the CIA of violating the Constitution's separation of powers.

The 38-page report additionally concludes that Senate Intelligence Committee staffers may have improperly accessed documents related to the so-called Panetta review, a 2011 CIA internal report that several senators have said is highly critical of the CIA's enhanced-interrogation program. That still-secret report is said to corroborate the findings of the Senate panel's torture report, which was released last month and found the interrogation program to be ineffective. 

According to the review, CIA Director Brennan knew of the agency's access of the dedicated, walled-off network but that he and his agents did not act beyond the bounds of an agreement formed between the agency and the Senate. Brennan has previously demurred when asked who authorized the computer access, and had initially said that any hacking allegations were "beyond the scope of reason."

"The board found that no discipline was warranted for the five CIA personnel under review because they 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 [committee] work product," the board said in a statement. "Because there was no formal agreement—or even clear common understanding—governing the procedures to be followed in investigating a potential security incident in these circumstances, no course of action was free of potential complication or conflict."

In a statement, Sen. Feinstein said she and her staff were still reviewing the report, which they received Wednesday morning.

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

Sen. Ron Wyden, also a member of the Intelligence panel, quickly dismissed its findings.

"It is unreal that no one at CIA is being held accountable for hacking into Senate computers," the Oregon Democrat tweeted. "CIA Director [Brennan] refuses to say what rules apply to the CIA. I'm going to make sure his stonewalling ends," Wyden added in another tweet.

The conclusions of the accountability board also appear to contradict the results of an investigation into the conflict made last year by CIA inspector general James Buckley, who found then that agency spies had indeed hacked the Senate in an improper manner. Buckley, the CIA said earlier this month, is resigning from his watchdog post at the end of January. The CIA has said his departure is entirely "coincidental" and has nothing to do with the Senate hacking scandal.

full copy of Buckley's investigation was also released Wednesday. Previously, only a page summarizing its findings had been made public.

The accountability board was widely expected to back up many of Buckley's findings, making Wednesday's announcement a surprising rebuke. The bo that marks just the latest dramatic chapter in an ongoing saga regarding the Senate's investigation into the George W. Bush administration's post-9/11 detention and interrogation practices, which legal scholars, human rights activists, and President Obama have all said amounted to torture.

The condemnation of an Intelligence Committee staffer who the accountability board said improperly accessed and downloaded "166 unauthorized files"—that is, the contents of the Panetta review—is even more striking. The report says that Senate staffer covertly printed those files and shared them with four other staffers in a manner inconsistent with the arrangement made with the CIA.

The accountability board was formed last year after Brennan apologized to Feinstein and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, then the top Democrat and Republican on the panel, respectively, for covertly accessing the computers the agency had set up for independent use by the Senate. Brennan had determined that a handful of CIA employees had "acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding" brokered between the CIA and its Senate overseers, agency spokesman Dean Boyd said at the time.

The accountability board, which was chaired by former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, himself a onetime chairman of the Intelligence Committee, met for three months before finishing up its investigation.