Senators to Obama: Your CIA Is Out of Control

The release of the Senate torture report last week has, in too many outlets, been portrayed in narrow, partisan terms: Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee against the Bush administration and its CIA.

If reporters had been watching the Senate floor more closely, they would have noticed that a number of Democrats were not only concerned with George W. Bush’s CIA. They did not have much more confidence in Barack Obama’s. Democratic Senators repeatedly denounced the CIA for providing misinformation, hiding behind a veil of secrecy, and attempting to intimidate Senate overseers.

Patrick Leahy:

Then there is also the troubling pattern of intimidation, which includes the CIA referring its own congressional overseers to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. My God, we are going back to the Joseph McCarthy days with things like this. This report and those actions show a CIA out of control. It is incumbent upon all of us—Republicans and Democrats alike— in the Congress to hold the Agency accountable.

Ron Wyden:

Earlier this year the Agency conducted an unprecedented and secret search of Senate files in an effort to find out whether the committee had obtained copies of the Panetta review. After it was found that committee investigators had in fact obtained the Panetta review, the CIA actually attempted to file unsupported criminal allegations against Senate staff members…Instead of acknowledging the serious organizational problems that are laid out in this report, the Agency’s leadership seems inclined to try to sweep them under the rug. This means organizational problems aren’t going to be fixed unless they are laid out publicly…

Barbara Mikulski:

I have repeatedly and publicly expressed my frustration about being lied to and manipulated by some CIA officials over many years.

Martin Heinrich:

What this study does is show that multiple levels of government were misled about the effectiveness of these techniques. If secretive government agencies want to operate in a democracy, there must be trust and transparency with those who are tasked with the oversight of those agencies.

Sheldon Whitehouse:

So congressional oversight was compromised in order to protect this program. People simply were not told. When they were told, they were given watered-down, misleading, or outright false versions. The separation of powers has been compromised by this. A Federal executive agency has actually used its technological skills to hack into the files of a congressional investigative committee. That investigation was allowed to file a criminal referral with the Department of Justice against members of the investigative committee’s staff. That, I believe, is a first in the history of separation-of-powers offenses in this

But it was three departing members of the Senate who made the strongest statements: Former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, Former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, and Senator Mark Udall of Colorado. All three closed their Senate careers with expressions of deep distrust in the intelligence community.

Former Intelligence Committee Chair John Rockefeller said:

It was, therefore, with deep disappointment that over the course of a number of private meetings and conversations I came to feel that the White House’s strong deference to the CIA throughout this process has at times worked at cross-purposes with the White House’s stated interest in transparency and has muddied what should be a clear and unequivocal legacy on this issue.

While aspiring to be the most transparent administration in history, this White House continues to quietly withhold from the committee more than 9,000 documents related to the CIA’s programs. I don’t know why. They won’t say, and they won’t produce. In addition to strongly supporting the CIA’s insistence on the unprecedented redaction of fake names in the report, which obscures the public’s ability to understand the important connections which are so important for weaving together the tapestry, the administration also pushed for the redaction of information in the committee’s study that should not be classified, contradicting the administration’s own Executive order on classification.

Let me be clear. That order clearly states that in no case shall information fail to be declassified in order to conceal violations of law and efficiency or administrative error or prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency. In some instances, the White House asked not only that information be redacted but that the redaction itself be removed so it would be impossible for the reader to tell that something was already hidden. Strange.

Given this, looking back, I am deeply disappointed, rather than surprised, that even when the CIA inexplicably conducted an unauthorized search of the committee’s computer files and emails at an offsite facility, which was potentially criminal, and even when it became clear that the intent of the search was to suppress the committee’s awareness of an internal CIA review that corroborated parts of the intelligence committee’s study and contradicted public CIA statements, the White House continued to support the CIA leadership, and that support was unflinching.

On December 9, Carl Levin spoke about the Senate torture report.

There has been a great deal of conversation, and rightly so, about the need for effective congressional oversight of our intelligence community and the obstacles that exist to that oversight. This report highlights many such obstacles. In one case, this report makes public the likely connection between the Senate’s efforts to oversee intelligence and the destruction of CIA tapes documenting abusive interrogation of detainees. In 2005 I sponsored a resolution, with the support of ten colleagues, to establish an independent national commission to examine treatment of detainees since 9/11. According to emails quoted in the report released today, Acting CIA General Counsel John Rizzo wrote on October 31, 2005, that the commission proposal “seems to be gaining some traction,” and argued for renewed efforts “to get the right people downtown”–that is, at the White House–“on board with the notion of our destroying the tapes.” Does it sound a little bit like Watergate? The videos were destroyed at the direction of Jose Rodriguez, then the head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, just 1 day after the November 8, 2005, vote on our commission proposal in the Senate. It is just one striking example of the CIA’s efforts to evade oversight.

Two days later, on December 11, Levin was denouncing the CIA on the floor again.  Levin spoke about his longstanding effort to declassify a 2003 CIA cable warning the Bush administration that the allegations of a “Prague meeting” between Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer were untrue. Levin said that, contrary to promises John Brennan made during his confirmation hearing, he was covering up the information in the cable to protect former Bush administration officials from embarrassment:

The March 13, 2003, cable is an invaluable record in helping the American people understand how their elected officials conducted themselves in going to war. Continuing to cloak this document with a veil of secrecy, revealing a few sentences at a time, allows those who misled the American people to continue escaping the full verdict of history. It deprives the American people of a complete understanding of how we came to invade Iraq. In his letter to me, Director Brennan writes, “I understand that your principal concern is that the historical record be as complete as possible regarding this period in our history, and on this point we are in agreement.” But Director Brennan’s apparent refusal to do what he has committed to do – to ask the Czech government if it objects to release of the cable – now takes on the character of a continuing cover-up.

Senator Mark Udall was the harshest of all in his criticism of the CIA. His speech, the sequel to Chairman Feinstein’s historic floor speech in March, is worth reading and viewing in its entirety.

Udall described the intelligence committee staff’s discovery of and efforts to preserve the “Panetta Review,” a CIA internal study that Udall called a “smoking gun” for its acknowledgment of facts about torture that the CIA’s official response denies. He said,

The refusal to provide the full Panetta review and the refusal to acknowledge facts detailed in both the committee study and the Panetta review lead to one disturbing finding: Director Brennan and the CIA today are continuing to willfully provide inaccurate information and misrepresent the efficacy of torture. In other words, the CIA is lying. This is not a problem of the past but a problem that needs to be dealt with today.

Udall also revealed the extent to which the CIA has refused to provide the committee with information about its unlawful search of Senate computers—the search that led and 19 of its partners to call for Director Brennan’s resignation last summer. Udall revealed that the Office of the Inspector General’s report into the incident has been withheld not only from the public, but from many of the Senate staffers whose communications were searched:

The CIA Inspector General subsequently opened an investigation into the CIA’s unauthorized search, and found – contrary to Director Brennan’s public protestations – that a number of CIA employees did, in fact, improperly access the Committee’s dedicated computers. The investigation found no basis for the criminal referral on the Committee’s staff. The IG also found that the CIA personnel involved demonstrated a “lack of candor” about their activities to the Inspector General.

However, only a one-page, unclassified summary of the IG’s report is publicly available. The longer, classified version was only provided briefly to members when it was first released, and I had to push hard to get the CIA to provide a copy to the Committee to keep in its own records. Even the copy in Committee records is restricted to Committee members and only two staff members, not including my own. After having reviewed the IG report myself again recently, I believe even more strongly that the full report should be declassified and publicly released.

Udall also revealed that John Brennan has continued to stonewall, and refuse to answer questions from the committee about the CIA’s search of staff computers:

In March, the Committee voted unanimously to request responses from Director Brennan about the computer search. The Chairman and Vice Chairman wrote a letter to Director Brennan, who promised a “thorough response” to their questions – after the Justice Department and CIA IG reviews were complete. The Chair and Vice Chair wrote two more letters, to no avail. The Director has refused to answer any questions on the topic and has again deferred his answers – this time until after the CIA’s internal accountability board review is completed, if it ever is.

So from March until December, for almost nine months, Director Brennan has flat-out refused to answer basic questions about the computer search – whether he suggested the search or approved it, and if not, who did. He has refused to explain why the search was conducted, its legal basis, or whether he was even aware of the agreement between the Committee and the CIA laying out protections for the Committee’s dedicated computer system. He has refused to say whether the computers were searched more than once, whether the CIA monitored Committee staff at the CIA-leased facility, whether the agency ever entered the Committee’s secure room at the facility, and who at the CIA knew about the search both before and after it occurred.

Udall extended his criticism to President Obama as well as the CIA. The White House, he said,  has shown “no moral leadership” or willingness to confront the CIA on torture, and has broken campaign promises on transparency:

But there is still no accountability, and despite Director Brennan’s pledges to me in January 2013, still no correction of the public record of the inaccurate information the CIA has spread for years and continues to stand behind. The CIA has lied to its overseers and the public, destroyed and tried to hold back evidence, spied on the Senate, made false charges against our staff, and lied about torture and the results of torture. And no one has been held to account.

Torture didn’t just happen, after all – contrary to the president’s recent statement, “we” didn’t torture some folks. Real actual people engaged in torture. Some of these people are still employed by the U.S. government. There are, right now, people serving in high-level positions at the Agency who approved, directed, or committed acts related to the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.

It is bad enough not to prosecute these officials – but to reward or promote them and risk the integrity of the U.S. government to protect them is incomprehensible. The president needs to purge his administration of high-level officials who were instrumental to the development and running of this program. He needs to force a cultural change at the CIA.

It was a remarkable speech–and every word rang true. It is extremely rare for a Senator to criticize either the intelligence community or a President of his own party so frankly, let alone both at once. But to date the White House’s only response has been to express confidence, yet again, in Brennan’s leadership.

Senator Udall, Senator Levin and Senator Rockefeller will not sit on SSCI next year. Its new chair, Senator Richard Burr, has a far more deferential attitude towards the CIA. This is what Burr and 5 Republican colleagues’ response to the Senate torture report says about the Panetta review, the document that triggered a constitutional crisis and that Senator Udall called “smoking gun” proof of CIA dishonesty:

given the CIA’s repeated assertions of privilege concerning the document since the January meeting with Director Brennan, at no time has a minority member or staff handled the document or reviewed its contents. (PDF p. 45)

Hopefully, other members of the Senate Intelligence Committee will not let the matter drop. But Senator Burr can use the committee’s rules on disclosure of “committee-sensitive” information to force the issue back behind locked doors.  The press is no more likely to demand answers to these fundamental questions than it has for the last nine months, and the CIA will be able to stonewall without any consequences. If we are going to get to the bottom of the CIA spying on its overseers, and the document they were trying to hide, we will probably need to look to the courts.

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