Why the torture report is such a hot potato

CIA director John Brennan may have seriously miscalculated when he publicly derided senator Dianne Feinstein for accusing the CIA of spying on her staff and clandestinely removing some of the documents that she says her staff had been given access to in their investigations of torture by the US government. Unnamed administration sources went even further and accused committee staffers of actually stealing documents from the CIA and triggering an investigation. If senate staffers, not previously known to be masters of internet espionage, could pull off such a feat against the CIA, that would be truly impressive.

Where Brennan made his mistake is that the CIA needs Congress to provide cover for its activities. The CIA needs them to ‘investigate’ and ‘provide oversight’ of their activities in sessions that are closed to the public and then issue statements saying that the CIA did nothing wrong and that there is nothing to see here and that we need to move on. Without the support of Congress, CIA directors tend not to last long because they are of limited use to the president since they can no longer serve as an effective buffer to shield the president from his own complicity in crimes. To alienate Feinstein of all people, who has a good claim to being the most supportive chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) in its history and who has provided cover for all the nefarious activities of the government, seems like a real blunder.

Former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman explains why Brenan must resign.

Brennan has clearly worn out his welcome with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), and recent history tells us that when a CIA director is found in the crosshairs of the committee it is time to go. In the 1980s, CIA director William Casey was found to be lying to the committee on Iran-Contra, and even such Republican members of the committee as Senator Barry Goldwater wanted his resignation. In the 1990s, CIA director Jim Woolsey angered SSCI chairman Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ) and other key members of the committee, and the Clinton administration persuaded Woolsey to resign.

Brennan never should have been appointed CIA director in the first place. During his campaign for the presidency in 2007-2008, Barack Obama spoke out against the militarization and politicization of the intelligence community, and indicated that an Obama administration would demand more transparency in the community and an end to intelligence abuses.

Immediately after the election, Obama appointed one of Tenet’s proteges, John Brennan, to head the transition team at CIA. Brennan, as Tenet’s chief of staff, was part of the corruption and cover-up at CIA.

It should not be forgotten that, during the Tenet era at CIA, Brennan was the chief of staff and deputy executive director under George Tenet, and provided no opposition to decisions to conduct torture and abuse of suspected terrorists and to render suspected individuals to foreign intelligence services that conducted their own torture and abuse.

So Brennan’s hands are not clean when it comes to torture which may explain his efforts to block its release or at least sanitize it.

The whole kabuki dance over the massive 6,300-page senate torture report, completed and adopted by the SSCI in December 2012 and still not released, is pretty absurd. Feinstein says she wants to release it. Obama says he also wants to release it. So why the delay? After all, president Obama has the right to declassify any documents he wants. And why is president Obama sticking with Brennan?

Over at The Intercept Marcy Wheeler suggests that it is because Obama is complicit in the cover up of the torture that was carried out by the Bush-Cheney regime and may have been involved in the current controversy over missing documents.

Did the White House order the CIA to withdraw 920 documents from a server made available to Committee staffers, as Senator Dianne Feinstein says the agency claimed in 2010? Were those documents – perhaps thousands of them – pulled in deference to a White House claim of executive privilege, as Senator Mark Udall and then CIA General Counsel Stephen Preston suggested last fall? And is the White House continuing to withhold 9,000 pages of documents without invoking privilege, as McClatchy reported yesterday?

We can be sure about one thing: The Obama White House has covered up the Bush presidency’s role in the torture program for years. Specifically, from 2009 to 2012, the administration went to extraordinary lengths to keep a single short phrase, describing President Bush’s authorization of the torture program, secret.

What is this damning phrase?

The National Security Act dictates that every covert operation must be supported by a written declaration finding that the action is necessary and important to the national security. The Congressional Intelligence committees – or at least the Chair and Ranking Member – should receive notice of the finding.

But there is evidence that those Congressional overseers were never told that the finding the president signed on September 17, 2001 authorized torture. For example, a letter from then ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman, to the CIA’s General Counsel following her first briefing on torture asked: “Have enhanced techniques been authorized and approved by the President?” The CIA’s response at the time was simply that “policy as well as legal matters have been addressed within the Executive Branch.”

Nevertheless, the finding does exist. The CIA even disclosed its existence in response to the ACLU FOIA, describing it as “a 14-page memorandum dated 17 September 2001 from President Bush to the Director of the CIA pertaining to the CIA’s authorization to detain terrorists.” In an order in the ACLU suit, Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein confirmed that the declaration was “intertwined with” the administration’s effort to keep the language in the Tenet document hidden. When the administration succeeded in keeping that short phrase secret, all effort to release the declaration also ended.

It seems as if Bush’s CIA director George ‘Slam Dunk’ Tenet, who dutifully lied to support the case for the invasion of Iraq, drew the line at being held solely responsible for any blowback from carrying out torture and thus implicated his boss George W. Bush as well.

As Bob Woodward described in Bush at War, CIA Director Tenet asked President Bush to sign “a broad intelligence order permitting the CIA to conduct covert operations without having to come back for formal approval for each specific operation.” As Jane Mayer described in The Dark Side, such an order not only gave the CIA flexibility, it also protected the President. “To give the President deniability, and to keep him from getting his hands dirty, the finding called for the President to delegate blanket authority to Tenet to decide on a case-by-case basis whom to kill, whom to kidnap, whom to detain and interrogate, and how.”

When George Tenet signed written guidelines for the CIA’s torture program in 2003, however, he appeared to have deliberately deprived the President of that deniability by including the source of CIA’s authorization – presumably naming the President – in a document interrogators would see.

The White House’s fight to keep the short phrase describing Bush’s authorization of the torture program hidden speaks to its apparent ambivalence over the torture program. Even after President Obama released the DOJ memos authorizing torture – along with a damning CIA Inspector General Report and a wide range of documents revealing bureaucratic discussions within the CIA about torture – the White House still fought the release of the phrase that would have made it clear that the CIA conducted this torture at the order of the president. And it did so with a classified declaration from Jones that would have remained secret had Judge Hellerstein not insisted it be made public.

So this may explain the current fight over the torture report. Obama wants to continue the tradition of each president covering up the crimes of his predecessors, so that his successor will do the same for him. Maybe Brennan feels that since he is protecting the president’s complicity, the president will protect him in return and he can thus thumb his nose at Feinstein. History suggests that that is a risky move.


  1. colnago80 says

    So this may explain the current fight over the torture report. Obama wants to continue the tradition of each president covering up the crimes of his predecessors, so that his successor will do the same for him.

    One can recall the Werner Klemperer character in Judgment at Nuremberg telling the panel of judges before his sentencing, “Today you try us, tomorrow the Russians try you”.

  2. says

    From the sound of it, the situation is that the CIA lent the Congressional team a SCIF for their data, because the Congressional SCIF was full or something like that. It probably wasn’t “breaking into Congress’ computers” because it was already theirs. Or something like that.

    I wonder how much of this is posturing to be able to release the report. Hopefully some whistle-blower in the CIA will do it.

  3. says

    Unnamed administration sources went even further and accused committee staffers of actually stealing documents from the CIA and triggering an investigation.

    This happens when someone decides that something was released without being declassified properly. So, for example, if you have a clearance and access wikileaks you are considered to have been accessing classified information improperly. No first amendment issues or undue prior restraint, nosirree!

  4. readysf says

    One of the nice things about a democracy is that elected officials eventually return to their homes among the generl population…and can’t escape the equivalence. Our Congresspeople are starting to realize that a violation of their rights is equivalent to the violation of everyone’s rights.

    This is very encouraging.

    The “Islamic threat” won’t fly anymore, thanks in large part to Vali Nasr discussing Iran (rather than that neocon Dennis Ross) and Fareed Zakaria being the person to watch on CNN (rather than that old Jerusalem Post dog Wolf Blitzer). Muslims are part of the productive fabric of American democracy, and thats that.

    Next step: refocus the Pentagon to China from the Mideast, and tell Israel to grow up and take care of itself.

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