CIA probes its own for misuse of top-secret computer system

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The CIA is investigating 160 employees and contractors for exchanging inappropriate e-mail and off-color jokes in a secret chat room created within the agency’s classified computer network and hidden from management.

CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said the willful "misuse of computers" did not involve the compromise of any classified information.

But the probe, which is nearing completion, involves employees at all levels of the agency, including some senior managers, and most likely will result in at least a few firings, agency officials said.

"The serious thing for us is people willfully misusing the computer system and trying to hide what they were trying to do," said one intelligence official. "If they were doing this with the KGB’s computer system, we’d be giving them medals. Sadly, it was ours."

The House and Senate intelligence committees have been briefed about the secret chat room, which CIA investigators found while performing routine computer security checks, according to Harlow.

"Investigators uncovered evidence of long-term misuse involving multiple violations of CIA computer regulations," Harlow said.

An internal notice sent to all employees in May said, "This activity has apparently been taking place for some time and involves the use of unauthorized chat rooms and databases in an apparent willful misuse of the agency’s computer networks. Indeed, it appears that this group went to great lengths to conceal these actions. … Any attempts to alter or delete information on agency computer networks related to this investigation … could amount to a violation of federal criminal law."

Since then, all 160 employees and contractors who participated in what officials describe as an "invitation only" communications channel have been interviewed and given five days to explain their conduct in writing.

Several officials, including members of the Senior Intelligence Service, a cadre of career officers at the upper reaches of the civil service system, have been suspended with pay for the past six months while senior CIA officials try to determine what punishment is appropriate.

Robert Steele, a former CIA case officer with extensive ties to the agency, declined to name any of those involved but described two of the most senior officials under investigation as "innovative, out-of-the-box, unconventional thinkers — these are essentially the hackers of the CIA, in the most positive sense of the word."

One Capitol Hill source who has been briefed on the probe said it involves "some pretty clever people who know how to use computers creatively." The source said he thought the employees involved showed "bad judgment" and added that CIA officials have responded appropriately.

In some of the e-mails reviewed by investigators from the CIA’s Center for Security, the official said, those involved even wrote messages to the effect that, "If they ever catch us doing this, we’ll be fired."

Talk to us

More in Local News

FILE - A sign hangs at a Taco Bell on May 23, 2014, in Mount Lebanon, Pa. Declaring a mission to liberate "Taco Tuesday" for all, Taco Bell asked U.S. regulators Tuesday, May 16, 2023, to force Wyoming-based Taco John's to abandon its longstanding claim to the trademark. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
Hepatitis A confirmed in Taco Bell worker in Everett, Lake Stevens

The health department sent out a public alert for diners at two Taco Bells on May 22 or 23.

VOLLI’s Director of Food & Beverage Kevin Aiello outside of the business on Friday, May 19, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Coming soon to Marysville: indoor pickleball, games, drinks

“We’re very confident this will be not just a hit, but a smash hit,” says co-owner Allan Jones, who is in the fun industry.

Detectives: Unresponsive baby was exposed to fentanyl at Everett hotel

An 11-month-old boy lost consciousness Tuesday afternoon. Later, the infant and a twin sibling both tested positive for fentanyl.

Cassie Franklin (left) and Nick Harper (right)
Report: No wrongdoing in Everett mayor’s romance with deputy mayor

An attorney hired by the city found no misuse of public funds. Texts between the two last year, however, were not saved on their personal phones.

Firearm discovered by TSA officers at Paine Field Thursday morning, May 11, 2023, during routine X-ray screening at the security checkpoint. (Transportation Security Administration)
3 guns caught by TSA at Paine Field this month — all loaded

Simple travel advice: Unpack before you pack to make sure there’s not a gun in your carry-on.

Heavy traffic northbound on 1-5 in Everett, Washington on August 31, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
To beat the rush this Memorial Day weekend, go early or late

AAA projects busy airports, ferries and roads over the holiday weekend this year, though still below pre-pandemic counts.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Snohomish in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Troopers: DUI crash leaves 1 in critical condition in Maltby

A drunken driver, 34, was arrested after her pickup rear-ended another truck late Tuesday, injuring a Snohomish man, 28.

Housing Hope CEO Donna Moulton raises her hand in celebration of the groundbreaking of the Housing Hope Madrona Highlands on Tuesday, May 23, 2023 in Edmonds, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
$30M affordable housing project to start construction soon in Edmonds

Once built, dozens of families who are either homeless or in poverty will move in and receive social and work services.

A south-facing view of the proposed site for a new mental health facility on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, near 300th Street NW and 80th Avenue NW north of Stanwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
County Council OK’s Stanwood behavioral health center

After an unsuccessful appeal to block it, the Tulalip Tribes are now on the cusp of building the 32-bed center in farmland.

Most Read