Confession may be good for the soul, but apparently not for the Central Intelligence Agency. Nearly eight years after the supposed end of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” era, the agency is resisting coming clean about what it did. And it is blocking the Senate Intelligence Committee from releasing its own report on the now repudiated torture-like practices.
This is the real import of the she said/he said dispute that erupted last week [March 11] between the CIA and Sen. Diane Feinstein, the California Democrat who has long been a friend of the CIA as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. In an astonishing 15-minute floor speech, Feinstein charged that the CIA had illegally indeed, unconstitutionally spied on the Intelligence Committee as it prepared what has been described as a harshly critical report.
Brennan fired back in a matter of hours with a denial of sorts. “When the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong,” he said in a passage added to a previously scheduled speech.
Setting aside the details of this dispute for a moment, here is the most important passage from Feinstein’s speech. The Intelligence Committee’s preliminary report on the CIA’s interrogation practices, conducted by two staffers and completed shortly after Feinstein became chairman of the committee in 2009, was, in her word, “chilling.”
“The interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detention sites were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us,” Feinstein declared. Put differently: the CIA lied to us, and we are the Congress of the United States.
That preliminary report persuaded the committee to approve, on a bipartisan 14-1 vote, a full investigation of the CIA’s role in interrogation techniques that include practices long considered to be torture, such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation and prolonged stress positions. Nearly five years later, the report described as 6,300 pages long is still awaiting release.
The hold-up is at the CIA, which is reviewing the report ostensibly to guard against disclosure of any legitimately classified information (think: intelligence sources and methods). But one need not be a reflexive cynic to suspect that the agency is sitting on the report for more substantive reasons.
The further news from Feinstein’s speech is that the CIA itself came to very critical conclusions about its conduct in an internal review commissioned by Leon Panetta in 2009 when he was CIA director. As Feinstein put it, “the Internal Panetta Review had documented at least some of the very same troubling matters already uncovered by the committee staff.”
The committee’s access to the Panetta review is at the heart of the dispute that Feinstein aired she says reluctantly on the Senate floor. Committee staffers found the review among the mass of documents the CIA provided using search tools also provided by the agency, according to Feinstein’s account. She acknowledges that she does not know whether the review was provided intentionally by the CIA, unintentionally by the CIA, or intentionally by a whistle-blower.
Regardless, Feinstein insists the committee staffers did nothing wrong in uncovering the Panetta review. But Robert Eatinger, then the agency’s acting general counsel, thought otherwise. He went so far as to refer the matter to the Justice Department for a possible criminal prosecution. And, it would seem, he must have authorized the search of the committee’s computers in January that drove Feinstein first to complain and then, with no apology forthcoming, to take to the Senate floor.
Eatinger, unnamed in Feinstein’s speech but readily identified from public records, has no clean hands in this dispute. The career CIA lawyer is named more than 1,600 times, often unfavorably, in the Intelligence Committee’s still unreleased study.
As Feinstein explained, this was not the first access dispute between the committee and the CIA. Back in 2010, the committee staff discovered that the CIA had removed various documents from those it had previously made available. When Feinstein complained, the agency said it was done at the White House’s orders. But the White House denied issuing any such direction, Feinstein said.
In a credibility contest, anyone who knows the CIA’s history will readily decide whether Feinstein or the agency is most likely to be lying. “The CIA doesn’t do that sort of thing,” former CIA lawyer John Rizzo declared last week on WAMU’s Diane Rehm Show [March 13]. It fell to David Corn, Washington bureau chief of The Nation, to recall for listeners that the CIA indeed lied in the 1970s about Chile and in the 1980s about Iran-contra.
For observant Catholics, confession “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned” is the key to absolution: “Te absolvo.” Rather than confessing, the CIA is now disputing some of the conclusions in the Senate committee’s unreleased study even though, according to Feinstein, some of them “are clearly acknowledged in the CIA’s own Internal Panetta Review.”
The time has come for this controversy to be put to rest and, as Feinstein stressed, “to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.” If it cannot confess, the least the CIA can do is get out of the way for the Senate to render its judgment.