Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Powerful Senate Republican tamping down torture disclosures

New Intel Committee chairman aims to minimize access to bombshell documents revealing harsh interrogation methods

When the Senate Intelligence Committee released the much anticipated executive summary of the full report on the CIA’s torture program on Dec. 9, details of techniques like extreme sleep deprivation and anal rehydration gripped the country.

Now the committee’s new Republican chairman is trying to make sure that disclosure is its last.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., took over as the committee’s chairman in January, after the GOP midterm landslide gave control of the Senate to the Republicans. An intelligence hawk, he has quickly moved to keep documents related to the CIA’s interrogation program out of the public eye and the Intelligence Committee under tight control.

That has angered many critics who say that GOP control of the vital committee is a blow to transparency and will lead to greater secrecy around such controversial government policies.

“Neither the Senate Intelligence Committee’s historic report on the now defunct CIA detention and interrogation program nor the shameful truths it contains about the use of torture during the previous administration, can be wiped out of existence,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Amrit Singh of the Open Society Justice Initiative, who is representing two detainees mentioned in the Senate report before the European Court of Human Rights, said, “The report itself remains withheld from the public, and the public is entitled to full disclosure of this report, only with appropriate redactions, to the extent that they’re strictly necessary. This has been long overdue.”

Taking it back

On Dec. 10, then–Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent a copy of the full torture report, which is still classified, to President Barack Obama and to seven other top executive branch officials involved with national security. “The full report should be made available within the CIA and other components of the executive branch for use as broadly as appropriate to help make sure that this experience is never repeated,” she said in her cover letter to Obama, which asked him to use the full report in future CIA training programs.

Burr disagreed. Shortly after he took over as committee chairman, he sent an unusual letter to Obama asking him to return all copies of the full report. Burr referred Feinstein to the Senate parliamentarian for allegedly violating Intelligence Committee rules when she sent the full report to the executive branch. The parliamentarian cleared Feinstein of wrongdoing, but Burr was undeterred. “We’ll proceed to whatever the next step is gonna’ be,” he recently told The Huffington Post. “I think there will be a next step, but it probably won’t be a public one.”

A representative for Feinstein directed Al Jazeera to a press release in which she said, “I strongly disagree that the administration should relinquish copies of the full committee study, which contains far more detailed records than the public executive summary.”

Neither the White House nor Burr’s office responded to multiple requests for comment.

Torture report’s impact

According to many experts, the executive summary proved that techniques used by the CIA really were torture — an admission that Obama made even before the report came out. Debate continues to swirl over whether those techniques failed to provide unique intelligence and how much they damaged the United States’ relationships with its allies.

“The people who were involved in the program, who were its architects and implementers, have an understandable desire to minimize all of this — to seek to prevent a full discussion and perhaps a full awareness of the report,” said Alberto Mora, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights, who argued against harsh interrogation tactics as general counsel for the Navy from 2001 to 2006.

“Most of us were staggered by the degree of brutality [in the summary] and the precision with which it was depicted,” he said. “That’s why I say it strips away the façade of the interrogation not being torture, which was the claim by the apologists for that particular practice.”

Soon after the Intelligence Committee released the executive summary, human rights advocates called for the U.S. to prosecute the architects of the CIA’s torture program. The disclosure prompted former government officials in Romania and Poland to admit to hosting CIA black sites, where terrorism detainees were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques.

Those admissions could bolster efforts to hold countries that facilitated the CIA’s program legally accountable. Now journalists and human rights lawyers are pushing to gain access to other documents about the program as well as the full report.

“As a matter of justice, it is critical that this information be released so that these individuals can get some kind of acknowledgment of what was done to them and use it to access whatever legal remedies may be available to them,” said Singh.

Meanwhile, Burr is working hard to make sure those efforts for greater transparency are unsuccessful.

‘A smoking gun’

A similar drama is playing out over a different set of torture documents, the Panetta Review, which consists of more than 40 memos commissioned by then–CIA Director Leon Panetta in 2009 that summarize documents provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee. The CIA has consistently described the review as a series of incomplete and unreliable drafts. But in a speech on the Senate floor after the release of the summary, former Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., called it “a smoking gun” that corroborates the torture report’s conclusions that the CIA lied about the interrogation program’s effectiveness.

According to a floor speech by Feinstein in March of last year, Intelligence Committee staffers gained access to parts of the Panetta Review in 2010 through a search tool provided by the CIA. Fearing that the CIA would revoke their access to the review, as it reportedly did with other documents, they took a copy of the review to a secure committee office, sparking a war of words between Feinstein and the agency.

Now Burr is threatening to return the Intelligence Committee’s partial copy of the Panetta Review, which Udall and Feinstein say refutes claims that the CIA has made about its former interrogation program.

“The Panetta Review was never intended for the committee to have,” Burr said to The Huffington Post. “At some point, we will probably send it back to where it came from.”

‘Most of us were staggered by the degree of brutality [in the CIA torture report summary] and the precision with which it was depicted. That’s why I say it strips away the façade of the interrogation not being torture, which was the claim by the apologists for that particular practice.’

Alberto Mora

fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights

If Burr follows through, some worry that the CIA will destroy all copies of the review — just as it destroyed videotapes of detainee interrogations in 2005, despite requests for the tapes from Congress as well as the courts. That would be especially troubling, given pending Freedom of Information Act lawsuits by the ACLU and journalist Jason Leopold seeking access to the Panetta Review.

“Because of its past actions, we were concerned that the CIA might destroy the review,” said Jeffrey Light, who is representing Leopold in his case. “We sought a preservation order, but the court denied it as unnecessary, based on the CIA’s promise to maintain a copy of the review. If the Senate’s copy is returned to the CIA, the only assurance that the document will not be lost forever is the CIA’s word.”

Neither the White House nor Burr’s office responded to multiple requests for comment concerning the Panetta Review. Udall could not be reached.

In an email to Al Jazeera, CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani dismissed fears that the CIA will destroy the Panetta Review if Burr returns the Senate’s partial copy. “The so-called Panetta Review documents will be preserved as agency records, regardless of the outcome of pending litigation or actions by the Senate,” Trapani said.

Even if the CIA preserves the review, returning the Intelligence Committee’s copy would likely block Congress’ access to the document for the foreseeable future, since CIA Director John Brennan denied Feinstein’s and Udall’s requests for the full review. That could stifle further attempts at congressional oversight.

“There's a need for public accountability,” said Singh. “The American public — and the public around the world whose governments collaborated with the CIA in perpetrating these abuses — all of these people need to know about what was done in their name.”

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