The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 11-3 Thursday to ask the White House to declassify parts of a controversial investigation into Bush-era torture that has led to a historic clash between the committee and the Central Intelligence Agency.
"The report exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation, it chronicles a stain on our history that must never be allowed to happen again," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein following the vote. "This is not what Americans do."
Even though Republicans on the committee withdrew from the investigation early on, several, including Feinstein's Republican counterpart, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, voted to declassify the executive summary, findings and conclusions of the report.
Chambliss, however, disagreed with the report's conclusions and said he only voted to declassify parts of the report because he felt the public had a right to know the results.
"I was never in favor of this report being done. I think it was a waste of time," Chambliss said shortly after the vote, adding that the matter had already been adequately handled by the Senate Armed Services Committee. "However, the general public has the right to now know what was done and what's in the report."
The committee's investigation into the Bush-era CIA interrogation program is the focal point of a dispute between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the agency. The commitee's report is said to be highly critical, concluding that the CIA misled both the public and U.S. officials about the effectiveness of brutal interrogation methods. The tension between the agency and the Senate came to a head in March, when Feinstein accused the agency of violating the law and the Constitution by spying on Senate staffers investigating the program. The CIA accused Senate staff of unauthorized acquisition of classified documents.
During the Bush administration, more than 100 terror suspects, Feinstein said, were subjected to torturous interrogation methods the CIA claimed were necessary to extract useable intelligence. Now, five years after President Barack Obama banned the harsh methods and two after a fruitless federal criminal investigation into CIA interrogations that went beyond even what Bush administration attorney's authorized, the public may finally get a closer look at what was done. More than 400 pages of the report will now be submitted to the White House for declassification.
"The president really needs to own that process, and make sure the American people can see the entire truth of the CIA torture program," said Raha Wala, an attorney with Human Rights First. "If we get a public report that is blacked out or with extensive redactions that's not going to be helpful to the American people for understanding what was done in their name."
Although Obama has pledged his support for declassification of the report, Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said the CIA itself would conduct the declassification review "in consultation with other agencies."
In other words, the very same agency that the report accuses of engaging in torture and misleading the public about its effectiveness will play a role in deciding how much of the report the public gets to see.
"The president could wave a wand and release it all if he wants to, but he's not going to do that," said Vicki Divoll, a former counsel to both the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee. "He will rely on the intelligence experts to advise him on what, if anything, could affect past, present or future sources, operators or operations. And he will consult his policy advisers to assess the overall risks to U.S. interests and citizens."
Those experts will include CIA officials, perhaps even those with direct connections to the Bush-era torture program. Human rights and transparency advocates worry that the CIA's role in declassification could create a conflict of interest because the report itself is so critical of the agency. On the House side, California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the intelligence committee, was circulating a letter urging the White House to quickly declassify the report's findings.
"There's at least an apparent conflict of interest from the CIA, and so the president really needs to take the lead personally and direct his staff in the White House to lead the declassifciation process with input from the CIA only as needed," said Wala.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, said that despite whatever objections to the report that the CIA has the agency has an interest in not using its influence to drag out the process.
"I think they have an interest in getting over this episode and putting it behind them," said Aftergood. "They've mismanaged it up to this point, which is why we've been talking about it for years, at this point they know they have to deal with it."
Asked whether she believed the CIA would slow down the process, Feinstein said, "I would hope not."
The Senate Intelligence Committee has a last-ditch option, should the White House stall or otherwise refuse to release parts of the report the committee votes to recommend for declassification. Under Senate rules dating back to the 1970s, the Senate has a never-used power to unilaterally declassify information through a complex process that would involve a vote by the full Senate. But given that the White House and the CIA have said they support making public parts of the report, that likely won't be necessary.
It's unclear how long the review process will take, but Feinstein said that she hoped it could be done within a month.
"The summary is a few hundred pages that the agency and White House have already spent months reviewing. So the declassification process does not have to take a long time, but it won't happen overnight," said Divoll. "There will be much time spent hand wringing, and then wrangling with the committee. We will see how patient Chairman Feinstein is willing to be."