The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s scathing report on the genesis and efficacy of the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program was finally returned to the committee Friday after going through a months-long multi-agency declassification review.
And those agencies apparently didn't like what they reviewed.
As a result, it’s unlikely that the report’s 480-page executive summary — and the 20 findings and conclusions that the Intelligence Committee voted to disclose publicly — will be released anytime soon. In a statement issued Friday evening, the committee’s chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, said a “preliminary review” of the summary contained “significant redactions,” and the report will now be held by the Intelligence Committee until “further notice” in order to figure out the “basis” and “justification” for blacking out portions of the document.
This isn’t exactly a surprise. In April the White House gave the CIA — the agency whose interrogation practices were largely the subject of the Intelligence Committee report — the lead in determining what parts of the report's executive summary needed to be censored. Feinstein had objected to the arrangement, and Senator Mark Udall, a member of the committee, said President Barack Obama should “hold onto the redaction pen himself.”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, whose office oversaw the multi-agency declassification review that included the State and Justice departments, disputed Feinstein’s characterization that the executive summary contained far too many redactions, calling them “minimal.”
"We can’t just say, ‘Oops, we tortured some folks’ and shrug it off."
“More than 85 percent of the Committee Report has been declassified, and half of the redactions are in footnotes,” Clapper said in a statement. “The redactions were the result of an extensive and unprecedented interagency process, headed up by my office, to protect sensitive classified information. We are confident that the declassified document delivered to the Committee will provide the public with a full view of the Committee’s report on the detention and interrogation program.”
The report is more than 6,000 pages, contains 37,000 footnotes, and cost more than $40 million to produce. It will “be held for declassification at a later time,” Feinstein said in April. According to the Congressional Record, the report is divided into three volumes with different focuses: a comprehensive history of the interrogation program; the value of the intelligence it revealed; and the claims about its nature and effectiveness made by the CIA to Congress, the Justice Department, and the media.
VICE News previously reported that the report allegedly accuses “senior CIA officials” of lying during multiple closed-session briefings to members of Congress from 2003 to 2005 about the use of certain “enhanced” interrogation techniques. Sources also say the report suggests the agency sanctioned leaks to selected journalists about phantom terror plots that were supposedly disrupted as a result of information gained through "enhanced interrogation."
Two officials with access to the declassified executive summary told VICE News that some of the redactions allegedly pertain to the manner in which the detainees were held captive, and to certain torture techniques that were not among the 10 “approved” methods contained in a Justice Department legal memo commonly referred to as the “torture memo.” The officials said the never before–revealed methods, which in certain instances were “improvised,” are central to the report because they underscore the “cruelty” of the program. Some other redactions allegedly pertain to the origins of the program and the intelligence the CIA collected through the use of torture, which the Senate report claims was of little or no value — a claim with which the CIA disagrees.
Another US official told VICE News that the CIA “vehemently opposed” the inclusion of some of the footnotes because they allegedly revealed too many “specific” details about the CIA’s operational files, which evidently contain information about foreign intelligence sources and operations, and provide clues about the foreign governments that allowed the CIA to operate its torture program in their countries. (The National Clandestine's Service's operational files are protected from public disclosure and open records laws.) The report, according to the US official, identifies the countries where the suspected terrorists were held as “Country A, Country B, Country C.”
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they said they were not authorized to discuss the report.
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The disagreement between Feinstein and Clapper is just the latest drama since the Intelligence Committee began its “review" of CIA’s so-called rendition, detention, and interrogation program, which involved apprehending suspected terrorists and transporting them to secret CIA black site prisons around the world. There, the suspects were subjected to torture in an effort to extract intelligence so the US could foil terrorist plots.
The Intelligence Committee launched its analysis in 2009, just a few months after Obama was sworn into office, in response to another scandal: the CIA’s destruction of close to 100 interrogation videotapes that showed at least one high-value detainee being waterboarded, according to court documents.
The committee completed its work nearly two years ago and voted in December 2012 to approve the report. It handed the report off to the White House, the CIA, the departments of State and Justice, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for review and comment.
The CIA responded with a 122-page classified rebuttal in June 2013. The agency also sent out former CIA officials who ran and sanctioned the program to publicly attack and discredit the Senate’s report by granting interviews to reporters and writing op-eds. Agency Director John Brennan didn’t review the document for months; when he finally did, under pressure from the committee, he demanded substantive changes.
Senate Democrats responded by holding up the nomination of CIA’s top lawyer and a former CIA official who was nominated to serve in the same capacity at the Department of Defense. Then there were charges by Feinstein that the CIA hacked into committee staffers’ computers. The CIA then accused committee staffers of stealing classified documents. Both sides called for criminal probes. On Thursday, several Intelligence Committee members called for CIA Director John Brennan’s resignation and a Justice Department criminal probe after an internal CIA watchdog probe confirmed 10 CIA employees “improperly accessed” the computers of committee staffers who were working on the torture report.
The Intelligence Committee eventually relented and made the changes to its report that the CIA demanded; last April, it voted to approve the new version of the document, and again handed it off to the White House, CIA, and other government agencies for declassification review.
Feinstein said then that the report is “shocking” and “exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation. It chronicles a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen. This is not what Americans do.”
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But Obama said he can “understand why it happened.”
Speaking to reporters Friday afternoon before the White House turned over the declassified executive summary to the Intelligence Committee, Obama acknowledged that after 9/11, “we tortured some folks.”
The president rationalized the use of torture and to some extent shrugged it off, saying people were scared after the “Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this.”
Obama said people who feel a sense of outrage after reading the report should “not feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots."
Zeke Johnson, a spokesman for Amnesty International, told VICE News that “there has to be legal and ethical consequences” for what Obama acknowledged during the press briefing. “This isn’t just about the CIA and the people who carried out the torture,” he said. “It’s about the need for accountability at the highest levels from Bush on down.”
He added that under the Convention Against Torture, to which the US is a signatory, the United States is now “obligated to investigate, prosecute, and provide victims remedy” in the form of compensation. “There is a legal obligation to tell the full truth about torture and to hold people accountable. We can’t just say, ‘Oops, we tortured some folks’ and shrug it off. Clearly the US government tortured people. Now the question is whether the US will abide by its obligations under the Convention Against Torture, or will impunity continue?”
Obama appears to have already answered that question. He said he believes the release of the Senate’s apparently heavily censored 480-page executive summary is an example of how the US takes “responsibility” for torturing war on terror prisoners.
“Hopefully," Obama said, "we don’t do it again in the future."
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold