The Cable

CIA to Senate: Whoops, We Actually Did Break Into Your Computers

This story has been updated.

"Nothing could be further from the truth." That was CIA Director John Brennan's response in March when confronted with allegations that the agency had spied on Senate staffers assembling a report on Bush-era detention and interrogation policies. "I mean we wouldn't do that. I mean that's just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do," Brennan added before the Council on Foreign Relations.

Four months later, Brennan is singing a very different tune. According to a statement issued Thursday, July 31, an internal CIA investigation has found that agency employees did in fact gain inappropriate access to a computer network that was used by Senate staffers to study the millions of pages of documents used to compile their report, which is said to conclude that the agency's use of waterboarding and other brutal interrogation techniques failed to produce any valuable or actionable intelligence. According to the statement, Brennan has apologized to Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss, the chairwoman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

In a statement, Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who has emerged as an ardent critic of the intelligence community, blasted Brennan's efforts to defend the agency and called on him to publicly apologize. "The CIA Inspector General has confirmed what Senators have been saying all along: The CIA conducted an unauthorized search of Senate files, and attempted to have Senate staff prosecuted for doing their jobs," Wyden said. "Director Brennan's claims to the contrary were simply not true."

Still, the statement released by the CIA Thursday renders the admission in the vaguest terms possible, noting only that Brennan "was briefed" on the findings by the CIA's inspector general, David Buckley, and that "some CIA employees acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding" reached between the agency and the Senate Intelligence Committee to govern access to documents related to the detention and interrogation program.

The comments come at a particularly sensitive time for the agency, which is bracing for the public release of the summary of the Senate report. The White House is expected to declassify the document within the next few days, a move that will reignite the long-simmering debate over whether the CIA's brutal interrogation methods crossed the line into torture.

The dispute between the CIA and the Senate centers on how committee staffers were able to obtain access to documents that the agency believes they had not been cleared to read. In a blistering speech on the Senate floor in March, Feinstein accused the CIA of spying on her staffers and removing sensitive documents from their computers. Feinstein further alleged that the CIA had attempted to intimidate her staffers by threatening them with criminal charges. The comments were particularly striking coming from Feinstein, who has long been one of the spy agency's primary advocates and defenders.

"I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate," Feinstein said on the Senate floor at the time. "I have received neither." On Thursday, Feinstein welcomed in a statement the CIA's admission and called Brennan's apology and the report "positive first steps," adding that she expects a declassified version of the report to be made public soon.

The documents in question have been described as an audit of the detention program. According to the CIA, the documents were created after that program ended. As a result, they fall outside the scope of the committee's inquiry. Feinstein and her investigators of course disagree with that assessment.

But Thursday's statement sheds little light on the conclusions of the CIA's investigation and whether its inspector general found evidence to back Feinstein's charges. The Senate sergeant-at-arms is conducting a separate investigation into the incident. That investigation is still ongoing. The Justice Department said earlier this year that the imbroglio would not result in criminal charges.

Brennan is now promising a measure of accountability at the agency, announcing the formation of an "accountability board" to be chaired by former Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat and a former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Bayh will review the inspector general's report, "conduct interviews as needed," and, depending on his findings, will provide Brennan with recommendations on "potential disciplinary measures and/or steps to address systemic issues."

Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

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Syrian Torture Photos Prompt Calls for Action From Lawmakers

In an unusual briefing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Thursday, a disguised Syrian defector shared photos he had taken before fleeing the war-torn country that document what appears to be widespread atrocities carried out by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The gruesome imagery depicting starved corpses and tortured bodies prompted criticisms by lawmakers, including Democrats, that Barack Obama's administration isn't doing enough to end Assad's reign of terror.

The anonymous Syrian defector known only as "Caesar" testified before the committee while wearing a blue hooded parka with a baseball cap and sunglasses. Speaking through an interpreter, Caesar identified himself as a former photographer for the Syrian military police. Caesar said he was tasked with photographing images to verify that Syrian military personnel were carrying out the orders of top brass. Inside the hearing room, flat-screen TVs flashed images of emaciated bodies and poster stands showcased enlarged photos of mangled corpses.

The Syrian military photographer fled his country last year and handed thousands of photos to the United Nations and to FBI investigators. His photographs, which U.S. officials say are authentic, show some 11,000 mutilated and mangled bodies. The Syrian government dismisses the photographs as fakes.

"I have seen horrendous pictures of bodies of people who had tremendous amounts of torture, deep wounds and burns and strangulation," said Caesar.

Lawmakers, who appeared visibly shaken by the photographs, said the disturbing images were further evidence that the administration erred by failing to arm moderate members of the Syrian opposition sooner. The criticism came from both parties, with White House allies joining in the attacks.

"If we had taken that approach a year and a half ago, we may have been able to stem the growth of ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] and weaken the regime of Bashar Assad," Rep. Eliot Engel, the most senior Democrat on the committee, said. "But we didn't, unfortunately."

The White House has belatedly tried to bolster the rebels through moves like a new plan to provide moderate members of the Syrian opposition with $500 million worth of weapons, equipment, and training run by the Pentagon. Freeing up the money requires authorization from Congress, but many key lawmakers outside the Foreign Affairs Committee remain deeply skeptical of the White House's plan due to concerns about arming radical jihadists, further embroiling the United States in a distant civil war, and writing the White House a blank check subject to only modest congressional scrutiny.

Supporters of the Syrian opposition in Washington hope that the gruesome images will catalyze efforts to boost U.S. military support for Syria's moderate opposition. The briefing was in part facilitated by the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, an umbrella group that lobbies for additional U.S. support to the rebels. 

"This brings it to a whole new level," Oubai Shahbandar, an advisor to the Syrian Opposition Council, told Foreign Policy after the briefing. "This is genocide with a capital 'G.' You can't ignore this. You can't say there are no good options. We have rows and rows and rows of naked emaciated bodies." 

The Obama administration's commitment to arming the Syrian rebels is currently at a significant crossroads. 

The CIA is currently providing training and small arms to rebels in Jordan who have been vetted for potential ties to extremists while Washington allows Persian Gulf countries to provide anti-tank missiles. The CIA program has been criticized as too modest to make an impact on the battlefield, where pro-Assad forces have been steadily reclaiming lost territory and seem poised to reconquer Aleppo, the first major city taken by the rebels. It's unclear whether Caesar's brutal imagery will succeed in bolstering the case for further intervention. 

The Foreign Affairs Committee has provided some of Caesar's imagery below. (Warning: The images are intensely graphic and violent in nature. Click to see uncensored versions.)

 

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