Is Obama Stalling Until Republicans Can Bury the CIA Torture Report?

Dragging its feet declassifying the report, the White House may hope a GOP Senate kills it for them.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Continued White House foot-dragging on the declassification of a much-anticipated Senate torture report is raising concerns that the administration is holding out until Republicans take over the chamber and kill the report themselves.

Senator Dianne Feinstein’s intelligence committee sent a 480-page executive summary of its extensive report on the CIA’s abuse of detainees to the White House for declassification more than six months ago.

In August, the White House, working closely with the CIA, sent back redactions that Feinstein and other Senate Democrats said rendered the summary unintelligible and unsupported.

Since then, the wrangling has continued behind closed doors, with projected release dates repeatedly falling by the wayside.  The Huffington Post reported this week that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, a close ally of CIA Director John Brennan, is personally leading the negotiations, suggesting keen interest in their progress — or lack thereof — on the part of  Brennan and President Obama.

Human-rights lawyer Scott Horton, who interviewed a wide range of intelligence and administration officials for his upcoming book,  “Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Foreign Policy,” told The Intercept that the White House and the CIA are hoping a Republican Senate will, in their words, “put an end to this nonsense.”

Stalling for time until after the midterm elections and the start of a Republican-majority session is the “battle plan,” Horton said. “I can tell you that Brennan has told people in the CIA that that’s his prescription for doing it.”

Republicans are widely expected to win control of the Senate Nov. 4.

Victoria Bassetti, a former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer, wrote this week that the administration is playing “stall ball” and that Senate staffers expect Republicans would “spike release of the report” should they take over the chamber.

Asked if the White House is slow-walking the negotiations on purpose, National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan replied:

The President has been clear that he wants this process completed as expeditiously as possible and he’s also been clear that it must be done consistent with our national security. The redactions to date were the result of an extensive and unprecedented interagency process, headed up by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to protect sensitive classified information. We are continuing a constructive dialogue with the Committee.

She notably did not rule out the possibility that negotiations will extend beyond the 113th Congress.

The report, which Senate Democratic staffers worked on for five years, is over 6,000 pages long and is said to disclose new details about both the CIA’s brutal and systemic abuse of detainees and the pattern of deceit CIA officials used to hide what they had done.

The CIA’s hostility toward the Senate investigation burst into public view in March, when Feinstein disclosed that the CIA had improperly searched computers being used by her staffers — and then had leveled false charges against those staffers in an attempt to intimidate them. Brennan at first angrily denied those charges, then apologized, then angrily qualified his apology for the CIA’s actions.

Critics of the Bush administration’s torture regime are hoping the report’s release will lead to a long-sought moment of accountability. That, of course, is exactly what Republicans and people who were part of the regime — many of who are still in top positions in the intelligence community, and close to Obama — don’t want.

But the committee’s investigation was narrowly limited to the CIA’s involvement in torture programs. That will leave the people who gave the CIA its orders — starting with Dick Cheney and George Bush — essentially off the hook.

The findings also don’t address the considerably more widespread and common use of torture by the military at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. A bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee report in December 2008 definitively blamed senior Bush administration officials for sanctioning those practices. But coming at a time when the nation was anticipating a period of intense change as Obama succeeded Bush, the reaction was muted.

Should Republicans win control of the Senate as expected, the chairmanship of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence would be expected to go to Richard Burr of North Carolina. (The current ranking member, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, is retiring.)

Burr’s office declined to comment about what he would do as chairman if the release of the report were still unresolved. But his hostility toward the report is clear. Although he voted in favor of declassifying it in April, he said he was doing so people could see how wrong it was:

In December 2012, I joined several of my colleagues in voting against this report. At that time, I was deeply concerned about the factual inaccuracies contained within the report, including inaccurate information relating to the details of the interrogation program and other information provided by detainees. I had hoped that the authors of the report would ensure that the American public was provided facts, not fiction. I am extremely disappointed in the flawed and biased results of their work.

However, I voted today to declassify the report to give the American people the opportunity to make their own judgments. I am confident that they will agree that a 6,300 page report based on a cold document review, without a single interview of Intelligence Community, Executive Branch, or contract personnel involved, cannot be an accurate representation of any program, let alone this one…

I believe in our Intelligence Community professionals. I believe that they endeavor to make decisions in accordance with the law and in the best interests of our Nation. I believe that this Committee conducts vigorous oversight of Intelligence Community activities and programs, and will continue to do so. And I believe that there are many honorable people who have dedicated their lives to protect our country and we need to allow them to get back to work.

Should the report’s release continue to be delayed by the White House, Senate Democrats could of course take matters into their own hands, either by unilaterally releasing the (already carefully edited) report, which would be constitutionally protected “speech and debate” — or by leaking it.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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