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CIA staffers investigated for hiding chat room on classified computer


Secret site open for more than 5 years

In this story:

Alleged ringleaders were women

Computer scrutiny after misuse by CIA chief


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The CIA is investigating a covert chat room on the agency's internal classified computer system where "inappropriate" material was exchanged for more than five years, intelligence officials said Sunday.

One intelligence official told CNN that the chat room, which was kept hidden from CIA officials, "was an abuse of the agency's internal communications system." The official said there was no e-mail involved, only a private chat room set up on the agency's computer network. CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said there was "misuse" of computers, but no "compromise of classified information." An intelligence official said "the content (of the chat room) was much less significant than the fact of the secret channel" which "was an abuse of the agency's internal communications system."

Alleged ringleaders were women

The Washington Post reported Sunday that 160 people were involved in the illegal system, but intelligence officials said that figure was misleading.

One official told CNN that many people logged into the system once, perhaps read a joke, and then never logged on again. But the official said there was a system for "vetting" those who participated in the chat room. The official said many of the "ringleaders" were women and that one of the features of the chat room was "sexist jokes."

Many of the participants had jobs at the CIA that involved operating and maintaining the computer system, and had created the chat room "probably to prove they could," officials said.

There was no pornography posted, but there were offensive jokes and comments, and some communications stated that participants would be fired if management discovered the site, an intelligence official said.

"It was clear to people who were doing this ... what they were doing was wrong. They thought they could outsmart the system -- wrong again," the official said. Officials also discounted reports that those involved were given only five days to respond to charges against them. The officials said CIA employees were told in May they were being investigated for participating in the computer system and were given until September to respond.

Between five and 10 employees were placed on administrative leave with pay for six months while the inquiry was conducted, the official said. One official said there will be "a handful" of dismissals for participating in the unsanctioned chat room.

Computer scrutiny after misuse by CIA chief

The issue of misuse of computers by CIA officials has been in the spotlight since the revelation that former CIA director John Deutch wrote classified material on non-secure home computers that were also used to connect to the Internet.

That put the information in danger of being accessed by outside hackers. The CIA has found no evidence to indicate that material was compromised, but has not been able to fully rule that out.

Deutch, who left the agency at the end of 1996, has apologized for his actions.

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Central Intelligence Agency

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