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The CIA Explains What They Redacted From the Senate Torture Report — and Why

A CIA lawyer revealed what kind of information the agency redacted in the report's 499-page summary, and the reasoning behind the redactions.

by Jason Leopold
Feb 3 2015, 10:53am

Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Read more from Primary Sources: The VICE News FOIA Blog

These are not reasons why the CIA redacted portions of the Senate's so-called torture report: to cover up "violations of law," to hide "inefficiency," or to "prevent embarrassment."

So says a CIA lawyer in court papers explaining why some redacted portions of the 499-page executive summary, released by the Senate Intelligence Committee last December, can never be revealed. The information includes the identifies of covert CIA officers, "code words" used to conceal the identities of countries, "pseudonyms," "official titles," the number of people employed by the CIA, and the salaries of people who work for the CIA. The public disclosure of this information, the CIA said, would "damage national security."

Therefore, it all "needs to remain top secret," CIA lawyer Martha Lutz said in a January 21 declaration. Lutz was responding to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit I filed against the agency a year ago in which I sought a copy of the Intelligence Committee's executive summary. Now that the committee has released the document, VICE News is arguing that the CIA should further unredact it.

Panel: The CIA didn't spy on the US Senate, but the Senate stole documents from the CIA. Read more here.

The Senate committee's executive summary, part of a still-classified 6,900-page report and prepared by the panel's then-Democratic majority, concluded that the CIA did not obtain any valuable or unique intelligence from detainees it held captive and subjected to techniques such as waterboarding at CIA black site prisons. The CIA and Senate Republicans have vehemently disputed the Senate Intelligence Committee's conclusions. 

Release of the executive summary was delayed for months due to the fact that the agency and Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein butted heads over the extent of redactions the CIA insisted upon in the executive summary. Feinstein and other Democratic lawmakers on the committee wanted to include pseudonyms of officers and other agency officials who played a role in the detention and interrogation program. But the CIA and the White House would not permit it, arguing that the officers' lives would be endangered by journalists and human rights researchers who would likely quickly identify them.

Meanwhile, the war between Democrats on the committee and the CIA continues and shows no signs of abating

"Given the sensitivity of the detention and interrogation program, there is a significant concern that the release of any information that would allow for the identification of these individuals could place these persons and those associated with them in danger," Lutz said in her declaration. "In fact, following the public release of the Executive Summary, there has been widespread speculation regarding the individuals mentioned in the Executive Summary and attempts to identify those persons. Disclosure of the pseudonyms when connected with other details contained in the Executive Summary could lead to positive identification of those individuals. In order for the agency to effectively carry out its foreign intelligence gathering mission, it is imperative that the identities of covert personnel be protected."

'Disclosing intelligence expenditures would show the level of funding devoted to certain activities, which in turn would reveal the resources available to the Intelligence Community and the intelligence priorities of the US Government.'

According to Lutz, 7 percent of the executive summary was blacked out. She said the "vast majority of redactions concern CIA equities," but she noted that Department of State, the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense and FBI requested "limited redactions."

The redactions fall under a number of FOIA exemptions that the government uses to protect national security.

"Disclosure would harm national security because it would reveal certain capabilities, activities, and intelligence that would make it difficult to further obtain intelligence," Lutz said. "Intelligence sources must be certain that the US Government will do everything in its power to ward against the public disclosure of the intelligence shared and how that information was acquired."

Lutz said "seemingly innocuous details" such as dates or how much money the CIA spent "on a particular program" can't be released because they "could reveal broader intelligence priorities and the source and methods of certain intelligence collection when juxtaposed with other publicly available data."

"Disclosing intelligence expenditures would show the level of funding devoted to certain activities, which in turn would reveal the resources available to the Intelligence Community and the intelligence priorities of the US Government," Lutz said.

In other words, the public could use information about the costs associated with, for example, rectal feeding — if the CIA were compelled to disclose it — to build a mosaic and figure out additional details about the torture program that the CIA says has to remain secret.

The CIA also redacted "discrete pieces of foreign government and liaison information" from the executive summary.

"These details would indicate the identity of intelligence sources and the specific information shared," Lutz said. "Disclosing the fact of the relationship, the nature of the assistance, or the information provided — which is reflected in these redactions — would suggest to other foreign liaison service and foreign government officials that the US Government is unable or unwilling to observe an express agreement of absolute secrecy."

The CIA also redacted the geographic locations of its "covert CIA installations" and black sites. This information is deemed to be an "intelligence method" because it would reveal the purpose of it the installations and sites, even though it's widely known that the CIA operated secret prisons in Thailand, Lithuania, Poland, and other countries, and that detainees were tortured there.

Senate torture report finds the CIA was less effective and more brutal than anyone knew. Read more here.

But "official acknowledgement of the installation could cause the host country to take countermeasures, on its own, or in response to pubic pressure to eliminate the CIA within its borders," Lutz said. "And any information released about the installation could lead terrorists to attack it."

Lutz said if the federal judge presiding over the FOIA case is not convinced by the CIA's representations, she would file a declaration to the court, under seal, and provide more information about the intelligence at issue.

Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, told VICE News that Lutz's declaration is a fairly straightforward presentation on CIA's classification principles.

"What is uncertain, however, is whether and how these general principles apply to the specific redactions in the [Senate Intelligence Committee's executive summary], and whether the redactions are therefore justified," he said. "That's hard to answer from the outside. But the judge could attempt to do so" if he takes Lutz up on her offer and asks her to submit a declaration under seal.

The weird saga of the other 'smoking gun' torture report the CIA still has under wraps. Read more here.

Aftergood also noted that Lutz's claims that "none of the information was classified in order to conceal violations of law or to prevent embarrassment needs to be carefully parsed."

"The redaction information may indeed conceal violations of law or embarrassing material," he said. "But what CIA is saying here is that it was not classified 'in order to' conceal such information. In other words, this is a claim about the classifier's mental state and his or her intent, not about the information that is being withheld. As such, it is all but impossible to challenge — since who can prove or disprove what the classifier intended to accomplish?"

A final decision in the FOIA case is expected later this year. 

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold

Read more from Primary Sources: The VICE News FOIA Blog