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."
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