The CIA vs. the Senate: Inside the shadowy turf war at the center of American government

CIA chief John Brennan refuses to acknowledge surveillance conducted on the Senate's intelligence committee

Published August 13, 2015 9:15PM (EDT)

    (<a href=''>CRM,  <a href=''>Brandon Bourdages</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(CRM, Brandon Bourdages via Shutterstock/Salon)

It's funny what our CIA Directors will apologize for -- or not.

Back in May, Senators Ron Wyden, Martin Heinrich and Mazie Hirono, all members of the Senate Intelligence Committee (SSCI), sent two letters to CIA Director John Brennan asking him to apologize. One -- a classified letter not made public -- "asked Brennan to correct the public record regarding inaccurate public statements that he made in March on a separate topic." It was fairly obvious the public statements referred to Brennan's address to the Council on Foreign Relations on March 13. In response to an audience question, Brennan had claimed the CIA doesn't work with human rights abusers, a patently false claim.

The unclassified, public letter the senators sent on the same day asked Brennan "to acknowledge" that a CIA search of a server that was supposed to be dedicated to the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation of CIA's torture program "was improper." The senators also asked for a commitment that the CIA will not conduct such searches in the future.

At issue in this request was a fight over an internal CIA review of its own torture program, usually called the Panetta Review, because Leon Panetta had asked for it early in his tenure as CIA Director. Back in January 2014, Senator Mark Udall pressured the CIA to turn over the review, which offered proof that the agency had agreed with most conclusions that the SSCI Torture Report had reached. In response, the CIA launched an investigation into how SSCI staffers had obtained that review. Brennan had made an impassioned defense of the CIA's investigation of the committee tasked with overseeing his agency in March 2014.

Now, over a year later, the Senators on SSCI were asking Brennan to admit he had been wrong.

Almost three months passed after the senators sent the letters, with nary a peep from the CIA to either one of them. Finally, on August 6 of this year, Brennan finally responded -- but to just one of them. In his response, he corrected the lie he had told at CFR, notably acknowledging in the process that the secret request (the one that had asked that he correct a public statement) pertained to his claim that CIA "will not work with entities that are engaged" in human rights abuses. And while Brennan didn't admit to having lied -- at least in part, to protect the Saudis -- he did say he understood the senators "concerns about my brief, extemporaneous remarks."

In his letter correcting his lie, however, Brennan made no mention of the request on the same day that he acknowledge the CIA shouldn't have spied on its Senate overseers.

Brennan's ongoing refusal to admit the CIA shouldn't investigate the Senate is all the more inexcusable given that -- according to reporting from Vice's Jason Leopold -- Brennan considered apologizing for the improper search of SSCI's server over a year ago. The CIA even drafted a letter on July 28, 2014, stating that Brennan had recently learned that the CIA's Inspector General had "found support for your concern that CIA staff had improperly accessed the SSCI shared drive." Brennan's draft letter apologized "for the actions of CIA officers."

But Brennan never sent that letter.

Instead, days later, he sent an entirely different letter informing SSCI Chair Dianne Feinstein and Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss that he would establish an Accountability Board to review what the IG had concluded. That Accountability Board rejected what the IG had found, and instead focused largely on incriminating Senate staffers. Feinstein issued a list of 15 factual problems with the Accountability Board, problems she had identified before its release but which were not corrected in the report, including that the Board had incorrectly accused a Senate staffer of something which, in actuality, a Director of National Intelligence staffer had done.

Translation: Having already drafted a letter admitting CIA was wrong, Brennan changed course and instead doubled down on attacking the Senate.

No wonder Wyden and others are still calling on Brennan to correct the record. His ongoing silence -- his refusal to admit what he effectively already did last year -- that the CIA was wrong -- just serves as an opportunity for him, for his agency, to keep attacking those that oversee the agency.

So while Brennan can admit, indirectly, that our partners the Saudis behead dissidents and abuse journalists, he's still not going to give up the chance to double down against those who might oversee his own work.

Or, perhaps more importantly, he's unwilling to meet the other request the senators made: "a commitment that CIA will not conduct such searches in the future."

By Marcy Wheeler

Marcy Wheeler writes at and is the author of "Anatomy of Deceit."

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Cia Government Spying John Brennan Senate Spying Surveillance