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Inside the Battle Over the CIA Torture Report

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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After months of internal wrangling, the Senate Intelligence Committee is finally set to release its report on President George W. Bush-era CIA practices, which among other details will contain information about foreign countries that aided in the secret detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists.

Several U.S. officials told us that the negotiations are nearly complete between the Central Intelligence Agency and the committee's Democratic staff, which prepared the classified 6,300-page report and its 600-page, soon-to-be-released declassified executive summary. Dianne Feinstein, the committee's chairman, is set to release the summary early next week. Her staff members had objected vigorously to hundreds of redactions the CIA had proposed in the executive summary. After an often-contentious process to resolve the disputes, managed by top White House officials, Feinstein was able to roll back the majority of the disputed CIA redactions.

Among the most significant of Feinstein’s victories, the report will retain information on countries that aided the CIA program by hosting black sites or otherwise participating in the secret rendition of suspected terrorists. The countries will not be identified by name, but in other ways, such as code names like “Country A.” This falls short of Feinstein’s original desire, which was to name the countries explicitly, but represents a big victory for the committee nonetheless.

In a victory for the CIA, Feinstein reluctantly agreed to allow the redactions of the pseudonyms of agency personnel mentioned in the report. The CIA maintained that any reference to individuals working under cover that offered clues to their identities could place them in harm’s way.

“We need to understand the role that particular countries played across time. Even having pseudonyms for countries in the report is important for a full accounting,” said Raha Wala, senior counsel at Human Rights First, which advocated on behalf of the report’s declassification.

John Rizzo, who served as the CIA's acting general counsel during the black-site program and later wrote a memoir, "Company Man," said the agency has long fought against declassifying any information on the locations of the secret prisons overseas. "That was something we had fought for years and years," Rizzo told us. "Up to now one of the only remaining classified facts about the program was the names of countries where there were black sites."

Rizzo said the concern about even referencing the locations of the black sites is that one could piece together the locations with other information that is likely to be in the final public report.

One Republican Senate staffer familiar with the negotiations over the report said Feinstein's office relented on some concerns about redacting information that could identify countries hosting the black sites. "Do you scrub enough information to prevent that information from being released?" the staffer said. "It ended up as a half-step in-between, some of the stuff she wanted released and some of the information identifying the countries has been redacted."

The CIA and some Republican senators had argued that even such masked identifications could be deciphered, leading to compromised relationships with those countries’ governments. In June 2013, the top intelligence official at the State Department, Philip Goldberg, wrote a classified letter to Congress warning against the disclosure of the names of countries who had participated in the program.

That letter prompted two Republican members of the committee, Marco Rubio and James Risch, to come out against the public release of the report altogether, saying in a statement that “declassification of this report could endanger the lives of American diplomats and citizens overseas and jeopardize U.S. relations with other countries.”

There is also a risk that any information about foreign countries that aided the CIA programs, even using code names,  could be matched against public reporting that already exists to make them more identifiable. There have been news reports about cooperation by the governments of Poland,  Lithuania, Romania, Thailand and others.

"Just because something is leaked doesn’t mean it’s still not secret," Rizzo said. "A national security secret is still a national security secret until the government says otherwise."

The summary is expected to reignite the debate over whether the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques in the first years of the war on terror amounted to torture. Although the summary report is said to not use the word “torture,” officials said it would describe practices that any layman would understand as torture.

“We tortured some folks,” President Barack Obama said in July. “We did some things that are contrary to our values.”

The heart of the substantive dispute between the two major parties is whether the harsh interrogation techniques that President Obama has called "torture" produced valuable intelligence that led to the capture of al-Qaeda operatives. Republicans, as well as former CIA director Leon Panetta and a former acting director, Mike Morrell, have said that it did.

Originally there had been bipartisan support for the majority staff’s investigation, and the committee’s Republican staff was initially part of the investigation -- but it withdrew early in the process. Even after the Republican staff disowned the investigation, some Republican senators continued to support declassification, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

The committee’s release will include a written rebuttal from the CIA and a dissent from Republicans. That critique is expected to make the point that the Senate Democratic staffers who conducted the research never interviewed CIA officials for their report and make assessments that are contradicted by other classified information not included in the final public report.

The release will not include internal CIA documents that the agency accused Feinstein’s staff of improperly removing from a CIA facility that had been set up for the investigators to work at. Feinstein said that her staff had removed the documents, including a review by Panetta, only after CIA officials tried to surreptitiously remove them from computers being used by the committee’s staff.

“What was unique and interesting about the internal documents was not their classification level, but rather their analysis and acknowledgement of significant CIA wrongdoing,” Feinstein said on the Senate floor in July. “The interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detention sites were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us.”

The report's release will undoubtedly set off an argument over who prevailed in the fight, Feinstein or the CIA. But the more important debate will be over what needs to be done to ensure that whatever abuses the report reveals are prevented from happening again. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net