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Senators To Obama: The CIA Owes Us An Apology And You Know It

A new letter renews calls for the CIA's acknowledgement that an unauthorized January 2014 search of Senate computers was improper.

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

CIA Director nominee John Brennan, flanked by security, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, to testify at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON -- Three U.S. Senators are renewing their calls that CIA Director John Brennan cop to spying on Senate Intelligence Committee computers two years ago -- and this time, they’re going above the spy chief’s head.

In a letter sent to the White House Thursday, Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich, Ron Wyden and Mazie Hirono, all members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked President Barack Obama to step in on the Senate’s behalf and force the spy chief to, if not apologize, at least acknowledge that the search was wrong.

“We believe it is necessary for you to address this matter directly, and to ensure that senior officials in your administration recognize the importance of adhering to the rule of law,” the letter reads. “We ask that you instruct Director Brennan to acknowledge that the CIA’s unauthorized search of Senate files was improper and will not be repeated.”

Under Brennan’s leadership in January 2014, CIA personnel sifted through computers that Senate Intelligence Committee staffers were using to construct a report on the agency’s post-9/11 torture program. The spies were attempting to see if the senate investigators had obtained a particularly damning internal CIA document colloquially known as the Panetta Review. That search ignited a near-Constitutional crisis between the CIA and its chief overseers, with then-Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein accusing the agency of violating the law. The agency’s Inspector General found the CIA’s computer search to be improper -- an internal agency board, however, cleared the CIA of any wrongdoing.

The feud has simmered for nearly two years now, with Brennan staunchly refusing to apologize and the White House, despite vows of transparency, declining to wade into the conversation. Internal CIA documents -- and a known loyalty between White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and Brennan -- suggest the West Wing may have even known the agency intended to search the Senate computers. When lawmakers called for his ouster over the spying spat, the White House declared “great confidence” in Brennan.

Thursday’s letter underscores continuing frustrations from a small pocket of Intelligence Committee members on a lack of action from the Obama Administration.

“You have repeatedly spoken about the need for the American public to have confidence that senior intelligence officials respect US laws and the Constitution,” the letter reads. “Director Brennan’s refusal to acknowledge that unauthorized clandestine searches of Senate files are improper has clearly undermined that confidence.”

The CIA’s own internal agency review board blamed the search -- which involved access to a supposedly off-limits hard drive, emails and databases -- on miscommunications between agency leadership and the employees tasked with tracking down the Panetta Review. Unbeknownst to the CIA, senate investigators had obtained the document months earlier through a search tool that the agency itself had provided to them.

The letter comes just days before Brennan is expected to testify before the Intelligence Committee in an ever-rarer open hearing. Though Brennan has appeared frequently before the committee in closed session, this will mark his first appearance in an open session in nearly two years.

Brennan has ignored multiple requests from lawmakers to admit the search was improper. A letter sent by Hirono, Wyden and Heinrich in May of last year requested Brennan acknowledge the incident. He responded to the lawmakers’ other requests, but declined to address the computer search.

Read the full letter to the White House here:

Ali Watkins is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Ali Watkins at

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