What’s Driving The Fight Between The CIA And The Senate?

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) with CIA DIrector John Brennan during his 2013 confirmation hearing CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE
Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) with CIA DIrector John Brennan during his 2013 confirmation hearing CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE

This week a feud between the Senate’s intelligence committee and the CIA burst into the open, with each side accusing the other of breaking the law. But the very public spat is over 6,000 pages that only few have seen: the definitive Senate report on the torture programs of the early 2000s.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s review of the Bush-era torture program run under the CIA in the aftermath of 9/11 firmly concludes that not only was torture used, but that the intelligence gathered failed to prevent any acts of terrorism — at least according to those who’ve seen it. The report itself remains classified and outside the reach of the public, despite numerous attempts from the press to obtain access to it.

In a speech on Tuesday, Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) made waves when she accused the CIA of violating “the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333″ by improperly accessing a secure network intended only for committee staffers’ use as they perform their oversight function in preparing the torture report. The California Democrat, normally an outspoken defender of the intelligence community, also unleashed a new wave of criticism over the fact that it has still not seen the light of day, despite the Senate committee completing its draft in late 2012. Back then, Feinstein’s indicated that the document needed to go “to the White House, to the attorney general, to the DNI [Director of National Intelligence], to the CIA for possible technical amendments,” after which the document would potentially be declassified. But that process became lengthier last June when the CIA reportedly rejected the central finding of the report. And so the draft went back to the Senate, according to the CIA, delaying any declassification efforts.

The status of the report itself had managed to lay dormant for months. “The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has not yet submitted its final report to the CIA for classification review,” Dean Boyd, CIA Director of Public Affairs, said in an email to ThinkProgress. “We look forward to receiving the final report from the Committee. As we have stated previously, we have worked extensively with the committee to resolve differences and determine the best way forward on potential declassification and we will continue to do so.”


The Obama administration has in the past supported the release of the document, as indicated by Vice President Joe Biden’s statement last April. “I think the only way you excise the demons is you acknowledge, you acknowledge exactly what happened straightforward,” Biden said at the time. And now President Obama himself has waded into the debate. Obama said his administration has “worked with the Senate committee so that the report that they are putting forward is well informed and what I have said is that I am absolutely committed to declassifying that report as soon as the report is completed,” speaking off-the-cuff after an event on Wednesday. “In fact, I would urge them to go ahead and complete the report and send it to us and we will declassify those findings so that the American people can understand what happened in the past and that can help guide us as we move forward.”

But according to a report released on Thursday morning, the White House has not been entirely cooperative with the investigation. More than 9,000 documents related to the torture program, a number the White House called “a small percentage” of the 6.2 million pages of documents provided to the committee in a statement to McClatchy’s Washington bureau, have remained in the hands of the Executive branch despite Senate requests for access. And during his statements on Wednesday, Obama at least tacitly indicated that he backed CIA Director John Brennan’s decision to turn over the investigation of Senate staffers to the Justice Department.

Brennan was the Deputy Executive Director of the CIA at the time of the torture program’s running, a position he said in his confirmation hearing was more administrative in nature and not related to the execution of the program. During that same hearing, he told Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) that he was “unaware of any” evidence that torture lead to the death of Osama bin Laden. He also indicated that he had read the first draft of the Senate’s report while he was the White House Director of Counterterrorism and that it had “raised questions” about the efficacy of the information obtained through torture.

So just how closely held is the Senate’s report? Even other members of Congress have so far been blocked from reading it. “It is a continuing source of frustration that even Members of the House Intelligence Committee have been refused access to the Senate’s report,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a senior member of the committee, said in a statement. “Not only should access be provided to Members of Congress, but a declassified version should be made available to the public so we can have a full and informed debate.” A senior administration official confirmed to ThinkProgress that because of the length of the document, and the fact that it was in draft form last time it was in the White House’s possession, President Obama himself has been briefed on the Senate’s report but not yet read it himself.

According to Feinstein, the CIA’s claim that Senate staffers illegally accessed secret documents in their work — which justified their search — doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, leading to her rare public condemnation. Feinstein in her speech on Tuesday pledged to “have all updates to the committee report completed this month and approved for declassification.” And despite the fact that the Justice Department investigation’s now focuses into the staffers carrying out the edits, “I intend to move to have the findings, conclusions and the executive summary of the report sent to the president for declassification and release to the American people,” she said. “I believe it is critical that the committee and the Senate reaffirm our oversight role and our independence under the Constitution of the United States.”


This article has been updated to included comment from the Obama administration.