The CIA’s admission that it broke into Senate computers and spied on Intelligence Committee staffers has created a firestorm for the spy agency, with some calling for change at the top.
The scandal has stirred fresh doubts about Director John Brennan’s ability to lead the CIA and could make it difficult for the agency to push back on the findings of a Senate report on Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” techniques that might be released this month.
“This is going to feed into the Hollywood narrative about a wicked CIA,” said Jim Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Though the CIA’s hacking is unrelated to the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA), the snooping on Congress could add to the perception that America’s spy agencies are out of control.
“Folks are sick and tired of intelligence agencies running amok, and this only makes things worse,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said in a statement on Friday. “These actions cannot stand, and I will keep working with my colleagues to make sure that the intelligence community starts respecting civil liberties.”
The CIA’s inspector general said five officials — two lawyers and three information technology staffers — hacked into Senate Intelligence staffers’ drives and emails, but also said the three IT staffers “demonstrated a lack of candor about their activities” in interviews.
Most troubling for Brennan, the report confirmed allegations Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) made in March, after he specifically denied the charges and called them “beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we’d do.”
The reaction in some quarters of Congress was swift and strident.
Three senators, including two members of the Intel panel, called for Brennan to step down, saying that the relationship between the agency and Congress could not recover while he still held his post.
“I think that at this point, it would probably be better for the agency, frankly, if he step aside,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) told reporters in the Capitol on Thursday evening.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), too, called for Brennan to resign over the “tremendous failure of leadership,” for which “there must be consequences.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who led a 13-hour filibuster against Brennan’s confirmation in March, echoed the call for him to be “relieved of his post” along with the officials responsible for the snooping on Friday.
At least for the time being, Brennan’s job seems secure.
President Obama gave a full-throated defense of the CIA director in a news conference on Friday, claiming that he had “full confidence” in Brennan while praising him for both launching the watchdog report in the first place and subsequently passing the matter along to an accountability board.
Leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have also declined to call for Brennan’s ouster.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the Senate panel’s vice chairman, on Friday told the Washington Examiner that the watchdog report seemed to clear Brennan of any wrongdoing. In fact, he said, the agency chief had “done what he’s supposed to do.”
Nonetheless, heads are likely to roll at the CIA.
Lawmakers across the political spectrum called for accountability from the agency, either in the form of a full and public apology from Brennan, criminal cases against the five people behind the incident or new laws to reform how the agency operates.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said in a statement that he expected “those responsible for those actions to be appropriately held accountable.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has often sparred with more hawkish members of the Intelligence Committee, declined to call for Brennan’s resignation but said that whomever “authorized and carried out this unconstitutional act ... need[s] to be held accountable.”
Exactly what form the accountability takes remains to be seen.
The upcoming release of the Senate’s unclassified executive summary of the so-called “torture report” is likely to put an even harsher spotlight on the CIA’s activities.
That report is expected to contain explosive details about the interrogation techniques, and reportedly alleges that the agency lied to both Congress and the public about the techniques that were used.
The agency has begun pushing back against the report, but the hacking revelations could make it harder for present and former officials to win the battle of public opinion.
“This is the beginning of the story, not the end,” said Steve Vladeck, a law professor at American University.