White House Knew About CIA Spying on Senate Staffers

Today in totally unsurprising news, the CIA Inspector General’s recent report included the juicy little tidbit that the CIA consulted with the White House Chief of Staff before spying on Senate staffers who were investigating that agency’s use of torture during the Bush administration.

Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan consulted the White House before directing agency personnel to sift through a walled-off computer drive being used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to construct its investigation of the agency’s torture program, according to a recently released report by the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General.

The Inspector General’s report, which was completed in July but only released by the agency on Wednesday, reveals that Brennan spoke with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough before ordering CIA employees to “use whatever means necessary” to determine how certain sensitive internal documents had wound up in Senate investigators’ hands.

Brennan’s consultation with McDonough also came before the CIA revealed the search to then-Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), whose staff was the target of the snooping.

The new information suggesting the White House was aware of — and did not stop — the CIA’s computer snooping is unlikely to improve the existing distrust between Senate committee members and the executive branch. Feinstein has said that the CIA’s computer search likely violated the constitutional separation of powers, an allegation the White House has declined to directly address.

The Oval Office’s prior knowledge of the controversial computer review will no doubt worsen the tensions that have erupted over the matter between the executive branch, its chief intelligence agency and the lawmakers tasked with their oversight.

Keep in mind that McDonough was the White House’s point person between the CIA and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which distrusted each other immensely (a distrust that was entirely justified on the part of the Senate staffers, obviously). Also keep in mind that the computers in question that were spied on were set up by the CIA and that every document found on those computers was put there by them in response to subpoenas from the committee. And that it was McDonough who pleaded with the committee not to release the report after it was completed.

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  • D. C. Sessions

    It might not help relations with the Democrats on the Committee (notably Senator Feinstein), but that really doesn’t matter any more, does it? And as for the White House’s relations with the Republicans, well …

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    Well, Feinstein learned too late that there’s no amount of “in” you can have with the intelligence community that will make you one of them, if you’re not one of them. It’s an obvious lesson. As someone responsible for “oversight” she should have figured that out long ago — and not been so much of a lapdog for the agency.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    Here’s what I assume was going on: the CIA was monitoring those systems closely because they expected the senate staffers to leak the report to the press – then the CIA would be able to come down on them like 16t of bricks and suppress anything to do with the publication, and otherwise discredit and intimidate the senate staffers by charging them with leaking classified information. Cleverly, the staffers appear to have not fallen for that (fairly obvious) trap, and instead reversed the trap by looking for the command/control where whatever monitoring tool the CIA was using reported back to its masters. Again, they did exactly the right thing though it must have been sorely tempting indeed to report that “there is a virus on my computer!” and give it to F-secure or McAfee or one of the anti-malware companies to dissect. Which would have been extremely funny in the short term but a disaster in the long run. The one piece they missed was not attempting to charge the CIA with exporting data from a SCIF; I believe that you’re not supposed to do that even if you’re the classification authority that owns the SCIF, though there’s probably a lot of jesuitry that would happen to obscure the details there, so it wasn’t worth going after. They got the CIA to look exactly as dumb and sneaky as they possibly could given the situation as it unfolded.

  • Al Dente

    Considering how the Executive Branch has gone out of its way to prosecute whistle blowers, it doesn’t surprise me that McDonough approved the CIA’s break-in of the Committee’s computer.

  • eric

    To this day, I still don’t understand why the Senate didnt use the power of the purse to slap the exec. branch down hard on this one. Not even “it was controlled by democrats” is an excuse. Cut the CIA budget by 50% in response and tell the President that he gets the other 50% back after he’s done the necessary housekeeping.