The CIA admitted to senators this week that the agency improperly snooped through congressional computers, backtracking from agency Director John O. Brennan’s vehement denials earlier this year and further denting the embattled intelligence community’s credibility with Congress.
An internal CIA audit found that its personnel did search a Senate computer system seeking an embarrassing document that the agency believed had been stolen, but which senators said the CIA had turned over to Congress.
At the time, Mr. Brennan called the accusations “spurious” and “beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.”
This week, he had to retreat and apologize to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who initiated a Senate probe of the snooping, said the CIA’s behavior was “appalling and deeply threatening to our system of checks and balances” and that agency leaders need to take steps to restore trust.
Other lawmakers said it’s too late and that Mr. Brennan has squandered the trust of Congress. Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, demanded his resignation.
“The CIA unconstitutionally spied on Congress by hacking into Senate intelligence committee computers. This grave misconduct not only is illegal, but it violates the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of separation of powers,” said Mr. Udall, a member of the committee. “These offenses, along with other errors in judgment by some at the CIA, demonstrate a tremendous failure of leadership, and there must be consequences.”
The internal CIA audit was conducted by the agency’s inspector general. It remains classified, but agency spokesman Dean Boyd said it showed that employees “acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding” of how documents were to be treated.
Mr. Boyd said Mr. Brennan has formed an accountability board to look into the findings and that employees could be disciplined.
The showdown stemmed from a yearslong Senate investigation into harsh interrogation techniques used in the years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A key document known as the Panetta review, named after former CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, laid out a number of concerns including whether the interrogations were producing valuable information.
CIA officials accused Senate staffers of stealing the Panetta review, and Mr. Brennan’s top legal aide made an official referral asking the Justice Department to pursue a criminal case against staffers. Senators countered by starting their own investigation, demanding Mr. Brennan’s cooperation, and taking their own complaint to the Justice Department.
The CIA said Thursday that the Justice Department review has concluded without any finding on either side. The Senate is continuing its investigation.
The 6,300-page Senate report on interrogation techniques is awaiting declassification, but The Associated Press reported Thursday that a copy of talking points shows the report concludes that ambassadors in countries where the interrogations were taking place were specifically ordered not to tell the secretary of state, who at the time was Colin L. Powell.
In the meantime, senators demanded accountability for Mr. Brennan’s now-discredited denials.
“The CIA conducted an unauthorized search of Senate files and attempted to have Senate staff prosecuted for doing their jobs,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat. “Director Brennan’s claims to the contrary were simply not true.”
He said Mr. Brennan should issue a public apology.
Several others said they felt betrayed after supporting Mr. Brennan as the spy agency’s chief.
“I voted to approve John Brennan to lead the CIA, in the hope that he could help rebuild some of the trust between the agency and the intelligence committee. But that trust has only deteriorated during his tenure,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrat.
The White House backed Mr. Brennan, saying his steps to correct the record this week are sufficient.
“That’s the kind of proactive leadership that the president would expect from somebody who has an important job like running the CIA,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “And it in no way impacts any judgment on John Brennan’s strong record of making the kinds of difficult decisions that are necessary to keep the American public safe.”