ThinkProgress

New details on the fight for still-secret CIA torture docs

Former Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), right, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) make their way to a vote in the Capitol in this file photo. CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Newly released emails detail the contentious back-and-forth between two Democratic senators and the Central Intelligence Agency for access to an internal review of the United States’ controversial post-9/11 torture program. Despite the senators’ efforts, that CIA review remains hidden from both Congress and the public, leaving questions about whether the CIA lied to Congress and the White House.

The three email threads recently released to ThinkProgress add new details to the story of how former Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) pressed the CIA in 2014 for access to the “Panetta Review,” an internal review of the agency’s detention and interrogation program commissioned by former CIA director Leon Panetta. The senators believed the Panetta Review contradicted the CIA’s official claims about its detention and interrogation program, which used brutal tactics like controlled drowning, body slams, and rectal feeding on foreign terror suspects captured abroad.

The CIA released the new emails in response to a lawsuit this reporter filed after the agency did not respond to a public records request. They show exchanges in early 2014 between a member of Udall’s staff and the CIA.

The Panetta Review wasn’t widely known outside the CIA until December 2013, when Udall asked Caroline Krass about it during her confirmation hearing for the job of CIA general counsel.

One year before, the Senate Intelligence Committee had approved a draft of its study of the CIA detention and interrogation program, a summary of which it made public in December 2014. The official CIA response to the draft Senate study took issue with several of its findings. But in the course of their investigation, Democratic committee staff found a partial copy of the Panetta Review that they believed painted a different picture. Feinstein, who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, said in a March 2014 speech on the Senate floor said that, unlike the official CIA response, the internal CIA review agreed with the Senate’s draft study.

When the lead investigator on the committee’s study, Daniel Jones, noticed the discrepancy in the summer of 2013, Jones told The Guardian in 2016 that he decided to remove a partial copy of the Panetta Review from a CIA satellite site in northern Virginia to the committee’s secure offices on Capitol Hill. The agency had already destroyed interrogation videos in 2005, which triggered the Senate’s investigation in the first place. Jones did not want evidence of torture to disappear a second time, he told The Guardian.

The CIA responded to Jones’ actions by looking through committee staff’s computers at the northern Virginia site in January 2014 — an incident that would trigger accusations that March of illegal conduct from both sides against the other.

Believing that the partial copy of the Panetta Review obtained by Senate staff caught the CIA in a lie, Udall used Krass’ December 2013 confirmation hearing to press for access to the full and final review.

“I need additional information and additional assurances specific to the committee’s study before I can support your nomination,” Udall told Krass.

The newly released emails, published here for the first time, pick up shortly after that hearing. In the first email, dated Jan. 6, 2014, a Udall staffer (whose name is redacted) sends a CIA contact addressed as “Neil” (full name also redacted) a copy of a letter from the senator to President Barack Obama. That letter, which was reported at the time, urged Obama to ensure that the CIA shared relevant material, including the Panetta Review, with the committee. It also asked him to publicly commit to declassifying the committee’s study on CIA torture.

“This is a letter that is headed to you via snail mail today,” the email reads, “but I wanted to make sure you received it directly.” It’s unclear whether or how the CIA contact responded.

The second email thread, dated Jan. 8 and 9, 2014, appears to be between the same Udall staff member and CIA contact as the first email, but the full names are again redacted. The thread follows up on conversations it says then-CIA Director John Brennan had with Udall and Feinstein to discuss the Krass nomination and related issues, including the Panetta Review.

In a summary of Brennan’s conversations with Udall and Feinstein, the CIA contact laid out what they said Brennan told Udall about the Panetta Review. The review was really a series of drafts that summarized material already provided to the committee, the CIA contact said. These drafts were never completed or reviewed by CIA leadership, the contact said, because the agency’s Office of the General Counsel decided that creating such an internal review “could potentially complicate” an ongoing Justice Department investigation of the detention and interrogation program. The Panetta Review covered less than half of the material provided to the committee and was deliberative, the CIA contact said, and so it was “not appropriate” to share with the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“I’m told Senator Udall said that he appreciated the call and would get back to the Director with any concerns,” the email concludes.

That summary broadly echoes a description of the Panetta Review that Martha Lutz, head of the CIA’s Litigation Support Unit, made in a public court filing in December 2014. There, Lutz described the review as a series of over 40 drafts created by a varying group of around 10 CIA personnel and contractors detailed to the agency’s Special Review Team between mid-2009 and mid-2010, when the Office of General Counsel decided the review might “complicate” a Department of Justice Investigation.

“The documents remain in draft form, were never completed, and were not presented as final products to the Director or other senior CIA leaders,” Lutz wrote.

In a follow-up email on Jan. 9, 2014, the Udall staffer disputed some of what the CIA contact said about how the call between Udall and Brennan went. “According to Sen. Udall, after he heard from the Director, he said something about how there appears to be a disconnect between his own team’s understanding of the nature of this document/summaries and what he heard from the Director,” the staffer wrote. The staffer then said Udall wanted them to talk about setting up another call with Brennan.

“Udall does not believe he indicated that his concerns were satisfied or requests addressed,” the staffer said, “just that more conversations need to take place.”

Udall elaborated on that “disconnect” between the CIA’s internal Panetta Review and its official response to the Senate Intelligence Committee during a 2014 speech on the Senate floor. “I will tell you that the review is much more than a ‘summary’ and ‘incomplete drafts,’ which is the way Mr. Brennan and former CIA officials have characterized it in order to minimize its significance,” the senator said. “I have reviewed this document, and it is as significant and relevant as it gets.”

The Udall staffer sent the CIA contact a third email on Feb. 27, 2014, about Krass’ nomination, which Udall had put on hold over concerns about CIA cooperation with the Intelligence Committee’s torture study. In that email, the staffer referenced an email exchange with a third party, whose name is redacted, about “how the WH/CIA and Sen. Udall might meet halfway” to confirm Krass. The staffer also asked the CIA contact to reach out with any updates.

“I’m sure you saw that the Krass vote in Committee is scheduled for next Tuesday,” the Udall staffer added pointedly.

The Senate eventually confirmed Krass on March 13, 2014, after Udall released a hold he’d placed on her nomination. And the Senate Intelligence Committee publicly released the executive summary of its torture study in December 2014, after a lengthy fight over redactions with the CIA and the White House.

But the CIA has kept the full, final Panetta Review from both Congress and the public.

Asked about claims that the Panetta Review undercuts the CIA’s official statements concerning its detention and interrogation program, an agency spokesperson declined to comment on the record.

Former Udall spokesperson Mike Saccone said his old boss has not changed his position on the Panetta Review since early 2014.

“The Panetta Review affirms the findings of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s torture report,” Saccone told ThinkProgress in an email. “In other words, it shows the agency repeatedly misled the public and Congress on the efficacy of torture.”