It seems that President Obama has chosen sides in the fight between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee over a report describing the agency's torture program under President George W. Bush. The executive branch is standing with the CIA, standing behind its director, and even reportedly withholding documents from the Senate investigation.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's unusual, lengthy speech from the Senate floor on Tuesday outlined the committee's view of the situation. Staffers for the committee reviewed CIA documents in a leased room in northern Virginia. They stumbled across a document drafted by the CIA that provided an internal review of the program. When an early draft of the committee's report was criticized by the CIA, the staffers realized, according to Feinstein, that the CIA's arguments conflicted with that secret internal review. So, given the CIA's track record of deleting files and destroying evidence, it took a copy of the internal review back to Capitol Hill. The CIA reviewed the staffers' work, contrary to an agreement — and contrary to the Constitution, according to Feinstein.
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The CIA also asked the Department of Justice to file charges against the staffers for taking the report. That prompted Feinstein to accuse the CIA of attempted intimidation. According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, the White House knew the request was being made and apparently didn't act to intervene.
It also appears that the White House may have obstructed the research that went into the report itself. McClatchy reports that the White House withheld "more than 9,000 top-secret documents sought by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence" since Obama came into office. "In a statement to McClatchy," the report states, "the White House confirmed that 'a small percentage' of the 6.2 million pages of documents provided to the committee were 'set aside because they raise executive branch confidentiality interests.'" In her floor speech, Feinstein accused the CIA of removing documents from the set that committee staffers had been given access to, saying that the CIA blamed the removal on the White House. (The CIA subsequently apologized for removing the files.)
On Wednesday, Obama made a statement about the growing tension between the Senate and the intelligence agency. Noting that he acted immediately to halt the torture program itself, Obama claimed that "we have worked with the Senate committee so that the report that they are putting forward is well informed," and that he would release a declassified version as soon as possible. As for the request for charges to be filed against the committee staffs, the president said that it is not an "appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point."
"At the moment, there appears to be no danger that the White House will throw [CIA Director John] Brennan under the bus," Eli Lake wrote at the Daily Beast on Tuesday, suggesting somewhat darkly that the CIA could use its reserves of secret knowledge to embarrass Obama if he betrays them. "Then Obama would not only have to face opposition to his foreign policy from Republicans in Congress, but also the bureaucracy of spies that know many of his darkest secrets."
That's perhaps a bit melodramatic. After all, not even Feinstein's Republican peers on the Senate Intelligence Committee agree with her perspective on the fight. Speaking from the Senate floor, ranking minority member Sen. Saxby Chambliss said, "although people speak as though we know all the pertinent facts surrounding this matter, the truth is we do not." The Hill reports that Chambliss deliberately noted that he and his party didn't participate in the report that would implicate the Bush White House; in 2009, he voted against it being drafted.
It seems likely that the next stage of the fight is the finalization and declassification of the report. The CIA will dispute aspects of the committee's findings and ask that parts be kept classified. The committee will reserve its trump card, that internal report, to leverage as needed. And Obama will likely continue to side with the man he asked to lead the agency.