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When It Comes To Torture, Silence Is Bipartisan

If the GOP takes over the Senate, the Administration may get just who it wants as Intelligence Committee Chair.

October 22, 2014

Torture polit­ics makes for strange bedfel­lows. For those of you who think the Obama Admin­is­tra­tion does­n’t know how to work with Repub­lic­ans, think again. North Caro­lin­a’s Repub­lican Senator, Richard Burr, may soon be one of the Obama Admin­is­tra­tion’s best friends.

Burr, now a member of the Chair­man of the Senate’s Select Commit­tee on Intel­li­gence, is the presumptive Chair­man of the Commit­tee, if as predicted the Repub­lic­ans take control of the Senate.

Why will they be friends? It’s simple. The Admin­is­tra­tion’s stall ball, its protrac­ted review of the Commit­tee’s long-anti­cip­ated report on the nation’s torture program, has taken us to late Octo­ber. Just in time to see the Senate flip to a Repub­lican major­ity that will almost certainly spike release of the report, say Senate staffers. After all Burr, the Chair­man in wait­ing, is the guy who jested with a witness during a hear­ing: “I see you’re on your fourth glass of water and I don’t want to be accused of water­board­ing you.”

The clock is tick­ing down on the Commit­tee’s effort to release a public account­ing of our nation’s failed and repug­nant torture program.

Six months have passed since the Intel­li­gence Commit­tee voted to release its 480-page exec­ut­ive summary of its review of our nation’s “enhanced inter­rog­a­tion” program. By all accounts the report is shock­ing. It “exposes brutal­ity that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation. It chron­icles a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen,” the Commit­tee’s leader, Cali­for­ni­a’s Dianne Fein­stein, said in April.

As it must, the Commit­tee submit­ted the summary report to the Admin­is­tra­tion for review and redac­tion of clas­si­fied mater­ial. And then it waited and waited and waited for a response.

When it finally came, the Admin­is­tra­tion redact­ors had behaved like a bunch of  third graders off their Ritalin, running amok with black mark­ers. The proposed redac­tions rendered the report incom­pre­hens­ible. Some of the proposed redac­tions are “ludicrous,” accord­ing to one Commit­tee member, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.

We can’t know the nature and extent of the redac­tions. (Clas­si­fied!) But we do know that the Admin­is­tra­tion wanted to black out many of the pseud­onyms used in the report. The Commit­tee quite appro­pri­ately used false names when it chron­icled what CIA actors had done. But the Admin­is­tra­tion redact­ors appar­ently thought even that was too much. By putting a black bar across so many names in the report, they make the report unread­able, incom­pre­hens­ible and lack­ing any narrat­ive coher­ence.

Since getting the proposed edits, Commit­tee staffers have been meet­ing with the Admin­is­tra­tion to nego­ti­ate a comprom­ise and get the report done. They are meet­ing with the CIA gang whose “nego­ti­at­ing posture [is] consist­ent: start out with the most ridicu­lous posi­tion and even­tu­ally settle for one that is simply outrageous,” accord­ing to J. William Leonard, the former director of the Inform­a­tion Secur­ity Over­sight Office, the agency in charge of the nation’s secur­ity clas­si­fic­a­tion system.

There is no doubt that this tactic is entirely coun­ten­anced at the highest levels in the White House. The lead nego­ti­ator with the Commit­tee is the Pres­id­ent’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, who is also Obama’s former deputy national secur­ity advisor. And this is the White House that called in then-CIA director Leon Panetta for an explet­ive laden tongue lash­ing when he even agreed to give the Commit­tee docu­ments for review in produ­cing the report. This is the White House that stepped aside and let one of its own agen­cies shop a crim­inal refer­ral on the Commit­tee staffers prepar­ing the report, poten­tially provok­ing a real consti­tu­tional crisis.

Is there any hope that anyone from the Admin­is­tra­tion will exer­cise adult super­vi­sion on the redact­ors? There is only one adult who can step in now: the Pres­id­ent. Obama himself seemed to favor release of the report in the spring. He seemed to under­stand that our fail­ure to trans­par­ently and honestly account for a shame­ful chapter in our history injures us. The pseudo-secrecy that surrounds our not so secret torture program is no answer. It accom­plishes one thing: it makes it look like we can’t face facts or learn to be better. Our allies distrust us as a consequence, and our enemies abuse us for it.

In the coming months, then, the fate of the report rests in two hands: the Pres­id­ent and Senator Burr, a man who once read his congres­sional remarks off a roll of toilet paper.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

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