Amid CIA spying scandal, a question of accountability on torture

Critics say allegations of CIA tampering over torture report leave plenty for Obama administration to account for

During his presidency, Barack Obama has largely sought to stay above the fray on the issue of the CIA's use of torture during the Bush administration.
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In an extraordinary Senate session Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein accused the CIA of spying on and intimidating a Senate committee looking into George W. Bush–era interrogation techniques. But while the ensuing firestorm in Washington has largely centered on allegations of abuse of power by the nation’s pre-eminent spy agency, some critics say that in trying to steer clear of the dispute, the Obama administration has failed to demand sufficient accountability and transparency, even for policies that it has formally outlawed.

During his presidency, Barack Obama has largely sought to stay above the fray on the issue of the CIA's use of torture during the Bush administration, rejecting the methods used by the agency between 2001 and 2009 but keen to avoid any direct relitigation or prosecution of the past.

Upon taking office, Obama committed the U.S. to ceasing torture in its intelligence activities, according to Executive Order 13491, which specifically mentions the CIA and the methods it used prior to his administration. Yet some have complained that in failing to hold anyone accountable for policies enacted before it, the Obama administration has failed to bring transparency to the agency.

“The secrecy around the torture program means that torture is never behind us,” Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told Al Jazeera. “The reason for the public to know what happened at the CIA — and in the rest of the government — that resulted in torture and abuse is to help make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Tortured process

The dispute between the CIA and the Senate occasioned by Feinstein’s Tuesday remarks centers around the exhaustive report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence detailing Bush-era CIA detention and interrogation policies, which used torture, and the efficacy of such methods.

While the report’s 6,300 pages remain shrouded in mystery, locked in a behind-closed-doors battle with the CIA over its contents, sources familiar with its conclusions say it offers a hitherto unparalleled look at the scope of the interrogation programs, which Feinstein has said shows treatment of detainees “far different and far more harsh” than what has previously been made public.

The report, which reportedly cost more than $40 million to produce, is also said to cast doubt on intelligence gains gleaned from an interrogation program that embraced torture. The CIA has rejected this notion, saying it helped U.S. officials find Osama bin Laden.

Obama has said several times that he wants the Senate investigation to be made public. He repeated that request Wednesday.

“I am absolutely committed to declassifying that report as soon as the report is completed,” he said. “In fact, I would urge them to go ahead and complete the report and send it to us and we will declassify those findings so that the American people can understand what happened in the past, and that can help guide us as we move forward.”

Yet the president also seemed to give credence to the notion that a report will not come to his desk for declassification until the CIA is ready.

“With respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA, [Director of the CIA] John Brennan has referred them to the appropriate authorities, and they are looking into it, and that’s not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point,” said Obama.

Given CIA opposition to the Senate report, however, and the fact that the agency’s acting general counsel, Robert Eatinger, was in charge of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program during the Bush administration, it remains unclear whether the recommendations will be made public in the absence of a CIA drawdown.

Meanwhile, the White House has itself played a direct role in preventing the Senate investigation from gaining access to thousands of documents.

According to McClatchy, the administration has withheld "for five years more than 9,000 top-secret documents sought by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for its investigation ... even though President Barack Obama hasn’t exercised a claim of executive privilege."

The secrecy surrounding the Senate report has caused some to worry about the lack of willingness by the administration to wade into the matter more forthrightly.

“If the CIA manages to block even a public accounting of these abuses, it suggests either that the Obama administration can’t control its own intelligence agency or that it doesn’t want to,” said Laura Pitter, a national security expert at Human Rights Watch.

Steve Aftergood, who directs the government secrecy program at the Federation of American Scientists, told Al Jazeera that while the Feinstein/CIA spat and the Obama administration's legal obligations to bring the CIA to account for its use of torture were separate issues, it was nonetheless well within the administration’s ability to “bring this [episode] to a conclusion” by simply declassifying the report.

Skepticism over CIA accountability has likewise been echoed on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., has repeatedly sent letters and publicly urged the administration to declassify the Senate report and press the CIA to come clean on its past program.

“It is my belief that the declassification of the Committee Study is of paramount importance and that decisions about what should or should not be declassified regarding this issue should not be delegated to the CIA, but directly handled by the White House,” he said.

An honest accounting?

The committee report is not the first to chronicle the interrogation methods embraced during the Bush administration.

A similar report was declassified and released in 2009 by the Senate Armed Services Committee. But that report (PDF) examined interrogation techniques and prisoner abuse that fell under the jurisdiction of the U.S. military and the Department of Defense. The Pentagon vetted the report before its release and kept some redactions, though it was released largely intact. 

Still, it remains unlikely that, even in the case of a declassification, any kind of legal proceedings would ever enter the picture.

Despite his rejection of Bush-era torture policies, Obama distanced his administration from interrogation and detention policy early on in his presidency, ensuring that there would be no investigations into those who acted in good faith.

Upon the release of Bush administration Justice Department memos that gave the legal authority to “enhanced interrogation techniques” by CIA officers, Obama said that “the men and women of the CIA have assurances from both myself and from Attorney General Holder that we will protect all who acted reasonably and relied upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that their actions were lawful.”

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