Two Steps Backwards on CIA Torture

November 21, 2014–I was wrong. I wrote that the Obama administration, having used the existence of the Senate intelligence committee report to tell United Nations monitors that the U.S. is meeting its treaty obligations to investigate violations of statutes against inhumane treatment, was now moving to release the report. Instead that argument, tabled recently at an international conference in Geneva, now appears to have been primarily rhetorical. Today’s news is that the White House is collaborating with the CIA to suppress the Senate report. The cynicism exhibited here is breathtaking. A nation argues that accountability has been achieved by means of an investigative report that finds violations and is therefore suppressed. (I have no doubt that had the investigators found the CIA to be without blame this report would long since have been released, even publicized.)

Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, last reported here as traveling to California to meet the Senate committee’s chair, Diane Feinstein, should no longer be viewed as clearing last minute details before a release. Rather that visit now appears to have been a gambit to get the legislators to make further concessions on what their report can say. McDonough failed–and has now resorted to meeting with a larger group of Senate committee members in a bid to outflank Feinstein. He failed there too.

The Obama White House and the Senate intelligence committee are now at an impasse. This has several implications. Most critical, having now certified to an international body that the Senate investigation meets U.S. obligations for accountability, then suppressing the report, Mr. Obama considerably increases his stake in this poker game.

John Brennan’s remark of some months ago that the agency’s interest lies in ensuring an “objective” account of its activities is as cynical as Denis McDonough’s White House antics. There should be no doubt the CIA’s main interest in deleting pseudonyms for its officers from the report has nothing to do with exposure to attacks by terrorists. It is to insulate them from indictment before the International Criminal Court. The CIA has already had a narrow brush with disaster in Germany where U.S. spooks have come near to criminal charges, and in Italy a CIA snatch crew and its helpers were not only indicted, but convicted for war-on-terror activities (they have now run out of appeals). In Poland, those who collaborated with the CIA on the black prisons are being prosecuted. The (in)action on CIA declassification of the Senate torture report is not about after-the-fact criticism of the Bush administration, the real issue is that the activities of American spies have strayed so far from accepted practices that they are no longer acceptable to our international partners.

By going out on a limb to protect the agency President Obama buys responsibility for the coverup. That is way more dangerous for this nation than to let the denizens of Langley take the licks for their excesses. In particular because letting CIA off the hook means diluting our alliances with intelligence partners–and even the CIA admits (as a rationale for not releasing information elsewhere) those alliances are critical to its performance.

We are at the point where “intelligence effectiveness” requires releasing this investigative report.

From the White House point of view, it is equally distressing that chief of staff McDonough’s intransigence now threatens to trigger a seismic shift in the customs that have prevailed for congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies. The Senate committee has all along had the power to release this document unilaterally, as noted in this space a couple of times previously. It has been a customary practice–but is not a statutory requirement–for the congressional bodies to permit the CIA (or other agencies) to vet and redact committee documents. Senators are now actually talking about unilateral release. If that happens the secrecy mavens at Langley, the DNI and everywhere else in the intelligence community will lose a major tool they have traditionally used to cloak their daggers. Fearful Leader Clapper, the DNI, must be quaking in his boots! Stay tuned.

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