The Classified Classification Guidance on Torture, and President Obama’s Legacy

This June, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the classification guidance that now governs the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program, to see precisely how it had changed after the release of the Senate torture report’s Executive Summary last December.

The CIA’s response, received yesterday, vividly illustrates how much about the agency’s torture program remains secret. The classification guidance is four and a half pages long. Three and a half of those pages–presumably explaining what is still secret about CIA black sites and rendition, and why it still meets the criteria for classification—are entirely whited out. The only legible section of the document, which lists “Information Relating to the Former RDI Program That No Longer Is Classified,” is less than a page long.

The full document is available here.

The Obama administration largely sided with the CIA in the agency’s disputes with its oversight committee about the torture report, and has avoided even reading the full Senate report in an attempt to defeat a FOIA request for its release. Nevertheless, the President has made a number of public statements about the need to confront honestly the United States’ past use of torture so that it cannot be repeated. Just last week, he wrote the following in response to twelve Nobel Peace Prize laureates’ call for declassification of the program:

we do not claim to be perfect, and I have been very clear that in our response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, although our Nation did many things right, some of our actions were contrary to our values. The report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the CIA’s former detention and interrogation program reinforced my view that these harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as a Nation but did not serve our broader national security interests. I consistently supported the declassification of the executive summary, findings, and conclusions of the Committee report, as I firmly believe that public scrutiny, debate, and transparency regarding this program will help ensure these methods will never again be used.

In order to serve the same goals, civil society’s model Open Government Partnership National Action Plan includes a suggested commitment from on declassification of information about detainee treatment:


Declassify and publicly release crucial evidence regarding the rendition, detention, and interrogation of prisoners, and current policies towards detainee treatment. In particular, the administration should:

(1) Release the full, 6700 page SSCI report.

(2) Release the Panetta Review

(3) End all attempts to classify detainees’ memories of their own treatment

(4) Declassify the names and information concerning the treatment of the detainees whom the United States “rendered” to foreign custody

(5) Declassify the CIA’s treatment of prisoners in military custody in Iraq and Afghanistan

(6) Declassify the foreign countries that housed black sites or participated in the rendition program, particularly if those countries have acknowledged their own role.

(7) Declassify the full titles and pseudonyms, and (if acknowledged by the individuals in question, or in supervisory positions) names of individuals involved the CIA rendition, detention and interrogation program

(8) Declassify and release all CIA Inspector General’s reports, investigations and reviews into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, and fully release all versions of the Office of Medical Services Guidelines on Medical and Psychological Support of the program.

(9) Release documentation from John Durham’s investigations into the CIA torture program, including records of FBI interviews and the reasons that prosecution was declined

(10) Release the report of the Special Task Force on Interrogations and Transfers

(11) Release statistics regarding hunger strikes and force feeding at Guantanamo Bay, and the current Standard Operating Procedures for management of hunger strikes, enteral feeding, and the use of restraints (including restraint chairs).

(12) Release, with appropriate redactions for individual privacy, videotapes of force feeding at Guantanamo Bay and photographs of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan

The commitment—and similar model commitments about targeted killing, surveillance, and secret law–is ambitious but entirely achievable. The President has clear legal authority to declassify and release this information, just as he declassified the Office of Legal Counsel torture memos over the CIA’s objections during his first year in office. But we have not yet received any indication from the White House of whether it is being considered.

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