Last Tuesday, senator Mark Udall of Colorado lost his bid for re-election. He now faces a choice. He can fade away into the political sunset or make a significant contribution. How? By going on the Senate floor during the lame duck session from now until the end of the year when he formally leaves and reading into the congressional record the CIA torture report that has been kept concealed up until now.
The full report with all the sordid details was never going to be released because it would expose even more the hollowness of US claims to being some sort of paragon of virtuous behavior, for those who still cling to that illusion. What the Senate intelligence committee and the intelligence agencies are now wrangling about is merely over the release of the highly redacted and sanitized executive summary to the full report. The Obama administration, the Most Transparent Administration in History™, has been resolutely stonewalling and I suspect that they actually welcome the Republican takeover of the Senate because now there is a greater chance that the report will be completely buried.
Senator Udall, who along with Oregon senator Ron Wyden served on the senate intelligence committee and is thus privy to the report’s contents, has been hinting for a long time about the horrifying nature of the abuses committed by the government but did not openly reveal them because of the political repercussions. Both of them also hinted about the NSA’s massive spying program that was later revealed by Edward Snowden.
Now that Udall is leaving the Senate, he has the opportunity to reveal the document and some are urging him to do just that. Article 1, Section 6, Clause 1 of the US Constitution, Speech or Debate Clause, says that “[Senators and Representatives] shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any speech or debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other place.” This clause protects members of Congress from any executive actions for anything they say on the floor and was meant to prevent the executive branch of the government from intimidating members of the legislature and thus allowing the latter to play their rightful role as tribunes of the people. Unfortunately, few congresspersons exercise that option because the congress itself can censure or reprimand or even expel members. But since Udall is leaving anyway, that particular threat has no teeth.
One of the people who risked his career by using this privilege and is urging Udall to so the same is former Alaska senator Mike Gravel who did something similar back in 1971 during the Vietnam war. Daniel Ellsberg had given one copy of the Pentagon Papers to Gravel because of his well-known opposition to the Vietnam war. Gravel, taking advantage of his immunity as a member of Congress, tried to read the entire Pentagon Papers on the senate floor but was thwarted by his colleagues using a procedural move. He used a different tactic to get the document into the congressional record and then released it to the media while the US Supreme Court pondered whether to allow the release. The next day the court ruled in favor of publication.
Dan Froomkin says that Gravel is willing and eager to advise Udall on how to do it.
“If Udall wants to call me, I can explain this to him,” Gravel, pictured above, said in a phone interview from his home in Burlingame, Calif.
Gravel’s recommendation: “What he’d have to do is call a subcommittee meeting like I did, late at night.”
Back in 1971, Gravel first tried to read the Papers from the Senate floor. He even got himself rigged up with a colostomy bag so he wouldn’t need to take breaks. But he was stymied by an unexpected procedural move.
So he moved to Plan B: He called a late-night subcommittee meeting with almost no notice to the other members.
Gravel read some of the Pentagon Papers out loud, but challenged by dyslexia and overcome with emotion, he finally opted for another way: “I asked for unanimous consent to put it in the record of the subcommittee. And there was no one there to object.”
Once the Papers were officially in the record, Gravel handed out copies to reporters.
“If Udall wanted to do this, he could do the same thing.” Gravel said. “Hell, I’d fly into Washington and help him pass it out.”
Froomkin links to archival footage of a highly emotional Gravel speaking to the press after releasing the Pentagon Papers. The old video is spotty with sound fading in and out but sticking with it is worth it to see a senator using every means he had at his disposal to try and get important information out to the public. At times Gravel is so overcome with emotion that he cannot speak.
Udall can also go out with a bang by living up to his stated conviction “that the declassification of the Committee Study is of paramount importance and that decisions about what should or should not be declassified regarding this issue should not be delegated to the CIA”. Or he can quietly slink away. I am not hopeful that he will choose the former. Nowadays, almost all outgoing politicians take up lucrative careers as lobbyists. If Udall releases the report, both parties and the White House will make sure to let everyone know that whoever hires him can expect to be shut out of any government contact. He will be a pariah in Washington, the usual fate of anyone who goes against the national security state.
The only hope is if Udall thinks that transparency on this issue is so important that he would sacrifice a lucrative lobbying career. I do not know if he has that level of integrity.