- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday said he supports publicly releasing a Senate report on the CIA’s controversial interrogation program that has been at the center of a feud between the spy agency and its congressional overseers and that has brought relations between the two sides to a historic low.
"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," Obama told reporters, referring to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who have completed but not released a 6,300-page report on the CIA program. The report is said to find that the CIA’s brutal interrogations of suspected terrorists amounted to torture and didn’t yield useful intelligence about potential future terrorist attacks.
White House officials have said publicly on several occasions that the administration supports releasing the report so that Americans can read it and make up their own minds about one of the darkest, and most controversial, chapters in the CIA’s history. But the president’s remarks, coming in the midst of dueling accusations between powerful lawmakers and the CIA about the conduct of the Senate investigation, is likely to add new momentum to the effort to declassify the report.
Obama’s remarks came amid continued uncertainty about what role the White House played in a May 2010 CIA decision to prevent Senate committee staffers from accessing certain classified documents. The documents had earlier been provided to the staff as part of their inquiry, but then disappeared from the computers they were using in a classified CIA facility, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein said on Tuesday.
The California Democrat said that after staff discovered the documents were missing, she brought the matter up with the White House counsel, who "recognized the severity of the situation, and the grave implications of executive branch personnel interfering with an official congressional investigation." At the time, the White House counsel was Robert Bauer.
The conflict, she said, was resolved after the counsel and the CIA promised her that the spy agency would no longer access the congressional investigators’ computers or try to take back documents it had already provided the panel.
It remains unclear what those documents were about and why the CIA pulled them back. But Feinstein made clear in her remarks that the move made Senate committee staff suspect that the CIA might try again to restrict their access to classified files. She now accuses the CIA of improperly monitoring the committee staff members’ computers so that the agency could keep tabs on what documents they were reviewing, which she characterized as a violation of the separation of powers and an attempt to thwart the committee’s oversight role. In a separate incident, committee staff removed a set of material from the CIA facility and took it back to their office on Capitol Hill. The CIA referred that matter to the Justice Department as a potential criminal violation, an act that Feinstein calls an attempt to intimidate committee staff from doing their jobs.
Also on Wednesday, White House spokesperson Jay Carney said the the CIA told the White House it was referring to the Justice Department the allegations of staff removing documents from the CIA facility, which was the only place staff were allowed to review millions of pages of interrogation-related documents.
Carney described the alert from the CIA as a "heads up," and said "there was no comment, there was no weighing in, there was no judgment" by anyone at the White House.