CIA panel says agency did not snoop on US Senate aides

CIA panel says agency did not snoop on US Senate aides
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo is displayed in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, in this August 14, 2008 file photo.

WASHINGTON - A CIA panel on Wednesday rejected accusations that the US spy agency had hacked into computers used by Senate aides who were investigating the torture of terror suspects.

The panel's report contradicted allegations from lawmakers and the findings of the agency's own inspector general.

The first investigations had concluded last year that the Central Intelligence Agency had secretly gained access to computers being used by Senate intelligence committee staff members.

But the CIA had appealed the inspector general's findings to an agency "accountability board" headed by former senator Evan Bayh, a former White House lawyer and three senior CIA employees.

In its report, the board said there had been some "inappropriate access" to the Senate staff members' "work product" but no CIA employee should be disciplined, as there had been no wrongdoing and no law violated.

Instead, the board leveled allegations at the Senate staffers, saying that they had gained access to some CIA documents that they were not authorized to see - including a list of secret videos related to the interrogation program.

The report is sure to fuel friction between Democrats in Congress and the spy agency over the episode, even though CIA Director John Brennan had previously had issued an apology.

Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the intelligence committee who has been at loggerheads with the CIA over the issue, expressed disappointment with the board's report.

"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 said, in a statement.

"The decision was made to search committee computers, and someone should be found responsible for those actions."

The report also came shortly after David Buckley, the CIA inspector general who had accused the spy agency of wrongdoing in the affair, resigned from his post.

CIA faced 'dilemma'

The controversy stemmed from a computer network set up in a secure room to allow Senate staff members to review documents about CIA torture, while blocking unrelated classified material.

The aides were not allowed to bring any material out of the special room for their inquiry.

The report said the CIA had faced "a dilemma" as it needed to ensure that a system "containing substantial sensitive material was secure" but also "to safeguard the prerogatives of the Senate, particularly the protection of work product."

The CIA and senators never hammered out a written agreement to define exactly how to safeguard the committee's work, which laid the ground for conflict and misunderstandings, the report said.

Senate staffers should also have been aware that the CIA had reserved the right to monitor their access to the sensitive computer network "for security purposes," it said.

When CIA employees did have some "inappropriate access" to senate aides' computers, they did not snoop on any sensitive, "deliberative" communication among the staffers, the board said.

The head of the accountability board, Bayh, said in a statement that "it was a mistake that did not reflect malfeasance, bad faith, or the intention to gain improper access to SSCI (Senate intelligence committee) confidential, deliberative material."

The board proposed recommendations for similar situations in the future, including that a clear, written agreement define the rules for using a computer network shared between the CIA and another branch of government.

The CIA said in a statement it accepted the board's findings and recommendations.

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