The Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday is expected to approve the declassifying of the findings, conclusions and executive summary of its $40 million report on the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques, leaving it to the White House to decide just how much of the 6,300-page investigation will actually become public.
President Barack Obama’s decision on what to release could either startle the nation with details already described by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s chairwoman, as “un-American and brutal,” or offer a sanitized version of the controversial tactics used in questioning terror suspects.
In recent weeks, an unprecedented power struggle has surfaced between the committee and the CIA, which has triggered charges that the agency searched the panel’s computers without authorization and has led to requests to the Justice Department for criminal investigations of CIA personnel and Senate aides.
It’s unclear, however, precisely how the declassification process will unfold. The White House could directly oversee what should be released, given the tensions between the committee and the CIA over the report. Or the White House could cede even more control to the CIA, which could mean more details will be kept under wraps.
Already, the president is getting advice.
“The White House has to take control of the final review process,” said Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “The White House has to be the one holding the blackout pen and deciding what gets redacted and not the CIA.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of a growing number of committee members who plan to vote Thursday to declassify, said: “There is no reason for the administration to take an inordinate amount of time to declassify. The only reason to do so is if they’re trying to drag this out for political purposes.”
Obama has said he was committed to seeing the report declassified once a final version is completed. But he said it wouldn’t be proper for him to comment directly on the battle between the CIA and the committee, except to say that CIA Director John Brennan had referred the issues to the “appropriate authorities and they are looking into it.”
The ACLU’s Anders was wary.
“The White House can certainly consult people at the CIA who themselves were not involved in the torture program,” he said. “But it should not be giving the CIA authority to make redaction decisions.”
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said the administration’s position “remains that the executive summary and the findings and conclusions of the final RDI (Rendition Detention and Interrogation) report should be declassified, with any appropriate redactions necessary to protect national security.”
She said she wouldn’t speculate on a timeframe for declassifying something the White House hasn’t yet received. Some expect the process to take months.
“As we’ve said, we urge the committee to complete the report and send it to us, so that we can declassify the findings and the American people can understand what happened in the past, and that can help guide us as we move forward,” she said. “We’ll do that as expeditiously as we can.”
Last week, Brennan indicated the agency’s direct involvement, saying that the “CIA will carry out the review expeditiously” once the committee sends it to the executive branch.
The Democrat-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee has largely kept silent about its interactions with the White House, even as some members have decried what they contend has been the CIA’s refusal to surrender key materials on the agency’s use under the George W. Bush administration of interrogation methods believed by some to be torture.
The White House has been more involved than publicly acknowledged, however. For five years, the White House has been withholding more than 9,000 top-secret documents sought by the committee for its investigation, even though Obama hasn’t exercised a claim of executive privilege, McClatchy has reported.
White House spokesman Jay Carney later downplayed the significance of the withholding. “Throughout this process, the administration has facilitated unprecedented access to more than 6 million pages of records,” he said, adding that “a very small percentage of the total number of documents have been set aside because they raise executive branch confidentiality interests.”
The intelligence committee has 15 members, and at least nine are expected to vote yes. The pivotal votes were the two Maine senators, Collins and independent Angus King. They said in a joint statement Wednesday saying they will vote to declassify. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., also said he planned to vote to declassify.
“We remain strongly opposed to the use of torture, believing that it is fundamentally contrary to American values,” Collins and King said in their statement.
They also made it clear theirs was hardly a wholehearted endorsement of the process or all its conclusions.
“While we have some concerns about the process for developing the report, its findings lead us to conclude that some detainees were subjected to techniques that constituted torture. This inhumane and brutal treatment never should have occurred. Further, the report raises serious concerns about the CIA’s management of this program,” they said.
Collins and King noted that the report had limitations because it did not involve CIA officials, contract personnel or other executive branch personnel.
“It also, unfortunately, did not include the participation of the staff of Republican committee members,” they said. The committee has seven Democrats, seven Republicans and King, who caucuses with Democrats.
The senators pointed out that torture is wrong. “We must make sure that the misconduct and the grave errors made in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program never happen,” they said.
Burr added: “We’ve already expressed our opposition to the content.”
Declassifying, he said, is “the only way that we get minority views out there,” because the Republicans plan to offer their views on the report.
Charles Stimson, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee policy under former President George W. Bush, said he expects the CIA to play a “major role” in the declassification review and expects it will take months.
“Any time an administration is considering releasing highly classified materials they’re going to want to do a security declassification review and they’re required to, to make sure they don’t expose current sources, methods or tactics or personnel who are still involved or could be potentially harmed as a result of the release,” he said. “And I give them the benefit of the doubt that they will do that.”
“The White House can put their thumb on the scale if they want to, but they have to assuage Brennan and the institutional integrity of the agency,” he added.
Even the attorney for one of the “high valued detainees” jailed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is seeking access to the full Senate report.
James G. Connell III, the lawyer for Ammar al Baluchi, one of those accused of providing money for the 9/11 attackers, said in a release that he would ask the military commission to get the Senate report in hopes that it would produce exculpatory evidence.
“There is every reason to believe the (intelligence committee report) contains information about the CIA’s torture of Mr. al Baluchi,” said Connell. “The (intelligence committee) knows the truth of what happened, and the military commission considering whether to execute Mr. al Baluchi should know too.”