CIA Director John Brennan is regarded by many inside the agency as the most detail-oriented spy chief in a generation, an executive who maintains such tight control of departments and decisions that some subordinates grumble at his reluctance to delegate.
But the latest rupture in his relationship with Congress has prompted lawmakers to question both his command of elements of his workforce and his command of the facts surrounding their surreptitious search of computers used by congressional investigators.
An internal CIA report released Thursday included findings that were seen by many as fundamentally at odds with Brennan’s public assertions about the case earlier this year when he denied any wrongdoing on the part of the agency. The report found that five CIA employees had been involved in improperly searching computer files and reading e-mails of Senate investigators probing the agency’s use of harsh interrogation measures on terrorism suspects.
The conclusions of the review are “not a vote of confidence in the CIA director,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Friday. Citing the gap between Brennan’s previous statements on the matter and the newly disclosed facts, Graham said, “It makes me wonder what else he doesn’t know.”
With some lawmakers calling for Brennan’s resignation, President Obama declared Friday that he had “full confidence” in his CIA director, noting that Brennan had apologized to Senate leaders and had asked for the internal investigation that forced him to admit he had been wrong.
The criticism of Brennan comes at a critical time for the CIA, just before the expected release of a damning Senate investigation of the agency’s interrogation program after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“The timing couldn’t be worse” for Brennan, who has indicated that he plans to challenge some of the committee’s findings, said a senior U.S. official who has read the interrogation report. “He needs his credibility. It’s not great timing for him to lead a chorus of criticism of the substance” of the report.
Obama said the report had been returned to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday after review and declassification by the administration, putting the panel in position to finally release a report that it has spent the past five years assembling. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the intelligence committee, said the report arrived on Capitol Hill with significant redactions. “We need additional time to understand the basis for these redactions and determine their justification,” she said. “Therefore, the report will be held until further notice.”
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said over 85 percent of the committee report has been declassified, and half of the redactions are in footnotes. “We are confident that the declassified document delivered to the Committee will provide the public with a full view of the Committee’s report on the detention and interrogation program, and we look forward to a constructive dialogue with the Committee,” he said in a statement.
Obama denounced the interrogation program, which included the use of waterboarding, during his 2008 presidential campaign and made closing the CIA’s secret prisons one of his first moves in office.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, “we did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks,” Obama said. “I understand why it happened. . . . People did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and national security teams.”
The jockeying over the pending release of the Senate report — and the CIA’s admission that it searched the authors’ files and
e-mails — have contributed to an odd disconnect between the CIA and the Senate committee charged with overseeing the agency’s work.
Most members of the panel are staunch supporters of the agency’s current operations, including its controversial campaign of drone strikes. But the relationship between the two sides has deteriorated dramatically over the past year, in large part because of their competing efforts to shape how history regards the interrogation program.
The tension reflects the extent to which the CIA’s actions in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks remain deeply polarizing in Washington and beyond. Brennan, who was a senior executive at the CIA when the interrogation program was launched, faces a particular dilemma.
Endorsing the report’s findings would strain his ties with agency veterans, including dozens who still work at the CIA and had connections to the interrogation program. Criticizing the report, on the other hand, would risk alienating members of Congress who hold significant sway over his agency and career.
The committee’s 6,000-page report accuses the CIA of systematically misleading government officials on the severity of the methods and their effectiveness. “You come away with the sense that this was pathetically futile,” said a senior U.S. official who has read it.
The latest skirmish between Brennan and the Senate Intelligence Committee reflects the mutual suspicion that accompanied the panel’s work.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a member of the committee, said in an interview Friday that he was troubled that the agency’s inspector general report blamed only five CIA employees without making clear who had ordered or approved the secret search.
“It’s not clear to me how exactly the director became aware of this specific intrusion,” Heinrich said. “But it’s fairly clear to me . . . that the director played a role in setting the tone that would have led people to think this was somehow appropriate.”
The case centered on the CIA’s effort to determine how the committee obtained a secret document the agency never intended to share: a draft report that summarized, often in incriminating terms, the contents of documents being turned over to Congress.
“That effort included a keyword search” of all the committees’ files on a system it shared with the CIA, as well as “a review of some of the e-mails” of committee staff, according to the inspector general.
When lawmakers accused the agency of hacking into committee files, Brennan shot back during a public appearance that “nothing could be further from the truth. That’s just beyond the . . . you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.”
U.S. officials said that Brennan’s remarks have been interpreted too broadly and that his assertions were accurate. The inspector general “did not find that [the] CIA hacked into Senate computers or that it did so to thwart a Senate investigation,” a U.S. official said.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.