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CIA Director Brennan Apologizes to Senate Leaders for Computer 'Hack'

CIA Director John Brennan has privately apologized to Senate intelligence committee leaders now that the spy agency's inspector general has found that its employees did act improperly when searching Senate computers earlier this year.
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CIA Director John Brennan has privately apologized to Senate Intelligence Committee leaders now that the spy agency's inspector general has found that its employees did act improperly when searching Senate computers earlier this year.

The Agency said in a statement on Thursday that Brennan has commissioned an accountability board that will investigate the conduct of the CIA officers and discipline them, if need be. It will be chaired by former Indiana governor, senator and intelligence committee member Evan Bayh, who retired from office in 2011.

The Justice Department has so far declined to pursue criminal charges against the employees, who searched the computers for information gathered in the course of a Senate investigation into the CIA's interrogation techniques.

The CIA inspector general concluded "that some CIA employees acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding reached between" the committee and the CIA in 2009 regarding access to a shared classified computer network, the Agency said in a statement to NBC News.

A declassified summary of the report, obtained by NBC News, said that "five Agency employees, two attorneys and three information technology staff members, improperly accessed or caused access to the SSCI (Senate intel committee) majority staff shared drives on the RDINet (Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation network)."

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, said Thursday that she first heard the results of the IG's probe on Tuesday. "The investigation confirmed what I said on the Senate floor in March — CIA personnel inappropriately searched Senate Intelligence Committee computers in violation of an agreement we had reached, and, I believe, in violation of the constitutional separation of powers.

"Director Brennan apologized for these actions and submitted the IG report to an accountability board. These are positive first steps. This IG report corrects the record and it is my understanding that a declassified report will be made available to the public shortly."

In March, at a Council on Foreign Relations event, Brennan told NBC News' Andrea Mitchell flatly that the CIA "wouldn't do that."

"As far as the allegations of CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth," Brennan said. "I mean, we wouldn't do that. I mean, that's — that's just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do."

Senate aides familiar with the matter told the AP on Thursday that the CIA used classified "hacking tools" and created a fake user account in an effort to retrieve documents the CIA believed the Senate staffers had improperly accessed.

A U.S. official familiar with the inspector general report disputed that hacking tools were used, and told the AP that there was no malicious intent behind the CIA actions, but simply an effort to account for documents believed to have been improperly accessed.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is also on the intelligence committee, said Thursday that Brennan's apology needs to be public.

"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."

"What's needed now is a public apology from Director Brennan to staff and the committee, a full accounting of how this occurred and a commitment there will be no further attempts to undermine Congressional oversight of CIA activities," said Wyden.

The ACLU wasn't satisfied with the CIA’s response.

"An apology is not enough — the Justice Department must refer the CIA inspector general’s report to a federal prosecutor for a full investigation into any crimes by CIA personnel or contractors," said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the civil liberties group.

"It is hard to imagine a greater threat to the Constitution’s system of checks and balances than having the CIA spy on the computers used by the very Senate staff carrying out the Senate’s constitutional duty of oversight over the executive branch. It was made worse by CIA Director John Brennan’s misleading the American people in denying any wrongdoing."

— NBC News' Kelly O'Donnell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.