White House Putting Up ‘Fierce’ Fight to Conceal Torture Report

White House Putting Up ‘Fierce’ Fight to Conceal Torture Report

The White House is fiercely resisting the release of an executive summary of a 6,300-page Senate report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, Senate aides tell Foreign Policy, raising fears that the public will never receive a full accounting of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 torture practices.

At issue is the report’s identification of individual CIA officers by pseudonyms. The CIA and the White House want the pseudonyms and references to other agency activities completely stricken to further protect the identities of CIA spies. Senate aides say many of those redactions are unnecessary and render the report unreadable. Now even after Senate Democrats agreed to remove some pseudonyms at the White House’s request, the Oval Office is still haggling for more redactions.

"The White House is continuing to put up fierce resistance to the release of the report," said one knowledgeable Senate aide. "Ideally, we should be closing ground and finalizing the last stages right now so that we can release the report post-Thanksgiving. But, despite the fact that the committee has drastically reduced the number of pseudonyms in the report, the White House is still resisting and dragging this out."

A White House official denied the accusation. "The president has been clear that he wants the executive summary of the committee’s report to be declassified as expeditiously as possible," said the official. "We share the Intelligence Committee’s desire for the declassified report to be released; and all of the administration’s efforts since we received the initial version have been focused on making that happen, while also protecting our national security."

Up until recently, Barack Obama’s administration had avoided taking sides in the public spat between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee over the report — a $40 million, five-year study that is harshly critical of the agency. However, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough is now personally negotiating with Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California for further redactions, which is rankling some Democrats.

McDonough, who is close to CIA Director John Brennan, is slated to meet with Senate Democrats on Thursday, Nov. 20. Although the agenda will supposedly focus on the president’s priorities on immigration and the economy, aides say they will also raise disagreements about the torture report.

Continued White House opposition to the report leaves Senate Democrats in a difficult position in the waning days of their control of the upper chamber. Many Senate Republicans, including the Intelligence Committee’s next chairman, North Carolina’s Richard Burr, strongly oppose the report and could seek to bury it when they take control of the Senate in January. As a result, Democrats may have to relent and simply release the heavily redacted version even though it obscures some of the report’s findings. "I think the worst-case scenario is that we release the report but in the fully redacted form," said a Senate aide. "That’s a bad outcome … but one that the White House and CIA would be comfortable and happy with."

But Democrats also have the nuclear option.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who was defeated in the midterm elections, has threatened to read the unredacted report into the Congressional Record on the Senate floor, a rare and provocative move that is nevertheless protected by the Constitution’s "speech or debate" clause.

"I’m not going to accept the release of any version of the executive summary that doesn’t get out the truth of this program," Udall told the Denver Post last week. "Not only do we have to shed light on this dark chapter of our nation’s history, but we’ve got to make sure future administrations don’t repeat the grave mistakes."

Udall has not said definitively if he would go that route and did not respond to a request for comment.

As she exited a closed Intelligence briefing last week, Feinstein wouldn’t say what will happen with the report. "We’re trying mightily. We have a point of difference with the administration and we’re trying to resolve it and that’s all I can say," she told FP.

Already, civil libertarian groups are frustrated with the administration’s redaction policy. "The administration is failing the test it set for itself if it is continuing to demand unprecedented redactions that obscure key facts in the committee’s report," said Scott Roehm, senior counsel for the Constitution Project. "Understanding and acknowledging the full truth is the most basic step."