John Brennan’s Unsent Letter: ‘I Apologize for the Actions of CIA Officers’

New documents obtained by Vice’s Jason Leopold shed light on the actions of the intelligence agency after it was caught spying on its Senate overseers.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

When the CIA got caught spying on its Senate overseers, John Brennan, its director, at first defended the scandal-prone agency, dismissing the possibility of an act so unthinkable. Later, the CIA admitted breaking into computers being used by Senate intelligence committee staffers as they studied the agency’s brutal torture of prisoners. Two senators called on Brennan to resign. Others demanded a formal apology.

Now, newly released documents reveal that Brennan drafted a formal apology to Senators Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss, co-chairs of the intelligence committee.

“I apologize for the actions of CIA officers,” he wrote.

But Brennan never sent that letter. Instead, he sent a different draft with no apology. Jason Leopold of Vice News reports:

The draft apology letter Brennan wrote to Feinstein and Chambliss are two of more than 300 pages of documents VICE News obtained in response to a joint Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed against the CIA with Ryan Shapiro, a historian and doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We sued the CIA seeking a wide range of documents related to the allegations that the agency had spied on the Intelligence Committee and hacked into their computer network. While the CIA turned over some records, it also withheld thousands of pages, citing nearly every exemption under FOIA.

Here’s the best part:

After VICE News received the documents, the CIA contacted us and said Brennan's draft letter had been released by mistake. The agency asked that we refrain from posting it.

Notice the letter that the CIA meant to exclude didn’t contain any classified material or compromise any national-security secrets whatsoever. The public wasn’t going to be allowed to see it because the draft was embarrassing to people in power, even though it is plainly of interest to the press and to citizens engaged in self-governance. Meanwhile, as Feinstein told Leopold, “the CIA still has held no one responsible” for spying on the Senate, which ought to be reason enough for President Obama to fire its director. Perhaps Obama feels constrained by the fact that Brennan knows where the bodies aren’t buried by virtue of being intimately involved with virtually every drone strike of questionable legality that Obama has authorized. (It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that a future Senate intelligence committee will attempt a 6,000 page report on crimes committed during the course of America’s drone war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.)

The newly released documents also raise questions about the competence of Brennan and the CIA. For those keeping score at home, the following incidents have all taken place during Obama’s tenure in office:

  • In 2011, Leon Panetta––the previous director of the CIA––“revealed the name of the Navy SEAL unit that carried out the Osama bin Laden raid and named the unit’s ground commander” in the presence of an uncleared Hollywood filmmaker.
  • In 2012, John Brennan inadvertently “helped lead to disclosure of the secret at the heart of a joint U.S.-British-Saudi undercover counter-terrorism operation.”
  • During the Senate intelligence committee’s torture investigation, the CIA, which desperately wanted to conceal Leon Panetta’s torture review from the Senate, incompetently made it available to them through a Google search function.
  • And now they’ve accidentally released a draft letter that they intended to suppress.

As salutary as I believe the last two of those errors to be, the overall pattern suggests a national security establishment that is terrible at guarding legitimate and illegitimate secrets alike, even as it vigorously prosecutes breaches of the classification system in order to punish whistleblowers. Perhaps Brennan sent the wrong letter when he apologized, too.