Did the CIA Spy on the Senate?

Experts wonder whether Senate computer research was subject to CIA review, or if it counts as spying.

John Brennan testifies before a full committee hearing on his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 7, 2013.

A government watchdog is investigating whether the Central Intelligence Agency illegally monitored a Senate investigation into the agency.

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The Central Intelligence Agency’s internal watchdog is investigating whether the agency monitored members of the Senate Intelligence Committee staff who researched and wrote a report about detention and interrogation conducted by the agency. The controversy raises questions about what information the agency controls and how to ensure the executive and legislative branches of government maintain their oversight powers.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., confirmed for U.S. News that the CIA’s inspector general is investigating whether agency staff monitored computers designated for use by her committee to research and draft the report, but would not comment further on the matter.   

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To allow the Senate to conduct the research on classified files without compromising them on the Internet, the agency “established a secure electronic reading room at an agency facility” and a secure network drive for the staffers to prepare their report, according to a court document obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union. The court document cited Neal Higgins, director of the CIA’s Office of Congressional Affairs.

“One key principle necessary to this inter-branch accommodation, and a condition upon which Senate committee insisted, was that the materials created by [Senate Intelligence Committee] personnel on this segregated, shared drive would not become ‘agency records,’ even though this work product was being created and stored on a CIA computer system,” Higgins said in the document, which the ACLU obtained using the Freedom of Information Act.

More details about the Senate research on the detention programs is needed to determine if any spying by CIA staff occurred while Senate staffers were using computers at the spy agency facility at Langley, Va., or accessing information on other networks controlled by the agency, says Bob Baer, a former CIA secret case officer.  

“You would have to see the agreement between the Senate and the CIA when they did this,” Baer says. “They always told us whatever you did on a CIA computer was subject to an audit and a security review. We had no privacy.” 

The next steps for the CIA inspector general could include referring the findings to the Justice Department to begin a criminal investigation, and it could provide findings to the Senate Intelligence Committee or the White House to conduct oversight, says Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU.

“You can’t have meaningful oversight of an agency when the agency is monitoring you while you do it,” Anders says. “There is no reason why the inspector general should not explain whether the CIA was spying on Senate staff and what the repercussions are.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also published a letter Wednesday from CIA Director John Brennan acknowledging that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act could be applied to agency staff, but his office decline to comment further.

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Brennan said in an email to U.S. News he is “deeply dismayed that some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts.”  

“I am very confident that the appropriate authorities reviewing this matter will determine where wrongdoing, if any, occurred in either the executive branch or legislative Branch,” Brennan said.  “Until then, I would encourage others to refrain from outbursts that do a disservice to the important relationship that needs to be maintained between intelligence officials and congressional overseers.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee adopted its 6,000-page report on the CIA’s secret detention and interrogation program, which concluded abusive methods were ineffective, and a report written by former CIA Director Leon Panetta reportedly agreed with the Senate findings, both of which are classified. Brennan challenged the report's conclusion about the programs in a rebuttal to the committee last June, which is also classified.

Feinstein and fellow intelligence committee member, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., have each called for the declassification of the Senate report.

“This is a crucial issue since if it’s torture, we have gone out and broken international law and our own laws,” Baer says, arguing the reports should be made public. “We have a right to know.”