The Obama administration censored significant portions of the findings of an investigation into the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation methods on suspected terrorists, forcing the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee to delay their release “until further notice.”
The postponement added to serious frictions over the investigation between the administration and lawmakers, who have been pressing for the swiftest, most extensive publication of the findings on one of darkest chapters in the CIA’s 65-year history.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced the delay only hours after the White House returned the document to her after it completed its declassification review. It also came after Obama acknowledged hours earlier that interrogators for the spy agency had tortured suspected terrorists.
But Obama also voiced “full confidence” in CIA Director John Brennan a day after the CIA revealed that an internal investigation found – contrary to Brennan’s earlier denials – that agency personnel had broken into a protected database that was supposed to be for the exclusive use of Feinstein’s staff.
It wasn’t known what details of the 480-page executive summary, findings and conclusions of the Senate committee’s five-year, $40 million probe were censored during declassification reviews by the CIA and then the White House, which oversaw the process of excising information deemed sensitive to national security.
“A preliminary review of the report indicates that there have been significant redactions. We need additional time to understand the basis for these redactions and determine their justification,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the committee who’s been fiercely critical of the CIA interrogation program, also decried the blackouts, saying President Barack Obama had pledged to ensure a release of the findings.
“I am concerned about the excessive redactions Chairman Feinstein referenced in her statement, especially given the president’s unequivocal commitment to declassifying the Senate Intelligence Committee’s study,” Udall said. “I promised earlier this year to hold the president to his word and I intend to do so.”
Udall vowed to work with Feinstein to declassify the findings “to the fullest extent possible, correct the record on the CIA’s brutal and ineffective detention and interrogation program, and ensure the CIA learns from its past mistakes.”
The White House had no immediate response.
With a political tsunami bearing down on both the agency and its chief spymaster, Obama rhetorically conceded that waterboarding and other brutal techniques used by the CIA under the George W. Bush administration amounted to torture, which is illegal.
“In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong,” Obama told reporters. “We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.”
Though Obama has deployed the loaded term “torture” before, his timing Friday was particularly sensitive, coming before the release of the Senate committee’s long-awaited report.
Brennan’s future, too, fell more into question Friday amid growing congressional fury over revelations that the CIA covertly monitored computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers. With the new torture report about to become public, the news undermines Brennan’s leadership when he needs it most.
“Clearly he has to prove himself,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Friday. “I don’t know how he does that.”
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut added Friday that the report of CIA monitoring “renews the need for the Department of Justice to consider a criminal investigation,” while Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called it “the last in a string of events” justifying the need for “a new CIA director.”
Even key lawmakers who say they are still withholding judgment stress the delicate position Brennan finds himself in.
“If he misled Congress, that’s one thing. If he was misled, that’s something else,” Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Friday. “If he’s misled Congress, that destroys the trust that’s necessary between us.”
The timing for all the Capitol Hill concern couldn’t be worse for the 58-year-old Brennan or for the agency he joined as an analyst some 25 years ago and has headed since March 2013.
Obama’s characterization of those methods Friday as torture only adds weight to the report, as the United States is a signatory to the legally binding United Nations Convention Against Torture.
The Bush White House authorized the use of 10 “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, which simulates drowning, and sleep deprivation. But McClatchy has learned that the Senate’s investigators found that the CIA used techniques that were neither OK’d by the Justice Department nor approved by CIA headquarters.
The executive summary’s eventual release will thus test Brennan’s ability to reassure lawmakers and the public that the agency has learned its lessons, even as he fends off inevitable calls for criminal prosecutions and demands for more aggressive congressional oversight.
“It’s about time the Senate Intelligence Committee took seriously its job of ensuring that the CIA operates within the law,” Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, said Friday.
Complicating Brennan’s job, and potentially threatening his credibility if not his future, is the partially public release of a report on Thursday by CIA Inspector General David Buckley.
Buckley’s investigation revealed that five CIA employees, two lawyers and three information technology specialists improperly accessed or “caused access” to a database that only committee staff was permitted to use. The covert access occurred while committee staffers were working on the interrogation report.
Buckley’s inquiry also determined that a CIA crimes report to the Justice Department alleging that the panel staff removed classified documents from a top-secret facility without authorization was based on “inaccurate information,” according to a summary of the findings prepared for the Senate and House intelligence committees and released by the CIA.
The inspector general report’s conclusions conflicted with Brennan’s prior public denials that any monitoring took place and followed an unusually public spat between the CIA director and lawmakers like Feinstein.
Part of the reason for the tension, said one federal official familiar with the situation, is that Brennan stubbornly refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing and embarrassed Feinstein in the process. The official requested anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.
Brennan’s mea culpa in recent days might be enough to clear the air, at least between him and Feinstein. More generally, Brennan still has good relations with some top lawmakers and with the Obama White House, where he once served as counterterrorism adviser.
On Friday, Obama stressed that “John Brennan was the person who called for the IG report and he’s already stood up a task force to make sure that lessons are learned and mistakes are resolved.”
“I think Brennan has done what he is supposed to do,” added Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence panel.
But some remain unconvinced.
“Unless there’s new leadership, in my view, that will lead to a continuation of the strained relations and the lack of confidence that we have seen for the past months,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who serves on the Senate intelligence panel, said Friday.