Our guest blogger is Micah Zenko, Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In an interview with Fox News last week, former Vice President Dick Cheney announced that he had “formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos,” which reportedly demonstrate the “success” that enhanced interrogations had in compelling high-value Al Qaeda operatives to provide intelligence that helped to protect the United States from terrorist attacks. Shortly thereafter, an unnamed senior U.S. intelligence official told Politico.com that “The Agency has received no such request from the former Vice President.” This led to a further revelation from Cheney’s daughter Liz that the former Vice President had actually requested the CIA memos from the National Archives. At some point last Tuesday, the National Archives finally forwarded the request to the Agency, where it probably should have arrived in the first place.
Yesterday, on Meet the Press, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs noted that Cheney’s request is “in the very same process that if somebody else determined that a memo should be declassified…It’s a process that takes about three weeks. “ As anyone who has ever made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for CIA documents knows, this is an unprecedented time-frame, especially for memos that contain such highly sensitive raw intelligence. All of which raises questions about how and why the Obama administration is expediting the former Vice President’s request at this time.
In the experience of this analyst, CIA FOIA requests take anywhere from six to eighteen months to receive a formal ruling of whether the document can be declassified (often in redacted form), or whether it should be exempted on national security grounds.
The three weeks that Robert Gibbs described refers to the language in the FOIA law, which requires federal agencies to “determine within twenty days (excepting Saturdays, Sundays, and legal public holidays) after the receipt of any such request whether to comply with such request and shall immediately notify the person making such request of such determination and the reasons therefor (sic).” What this means in practice, is that a month after filing a CIA FOIA request, which can only be done via snail-mail or fax, you receive a letter that provides a case number and notification that your request is under review. Over the following months, you can call one of two CIA Public Liaison officers, who are friendly and responsive to voice mails, at 703–613–1287 in an effort to expedite the process, but they generally will only re-remind you that your request remains “under review.”
It is not clear under what authority former Vice President Cheney’s FOIA request for the CIA memos has been awarded fast-track preference by the Obama administration. Executive Order 12958 (as amended in 2003), allows for “Access by Historical Researchers and Former Presidential Appointees” for individuals who have “previously have occupied policy-making positions to which they were appointed by the President.” While this might apply to providing an open channel for Cheney to reference classified information as he writes his memoirs, it should not speed up what is the normal declassification process.
There should be greater transparency over the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs that were created after 9/11. The CIA memos requested by Cheney should eventually be declassified in the normal time-frame as part of that process. They should not, however, be rapidly declassified to score points on one side of the ongoing and intense political debates about the legality and effectiveness of the CIA programs.