Kerry Puts Brakes on CIA Torture Report
Secretary of State John Kerry personally phoned Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Friday morning to ask her to delay the imminent release of her committee’s report on CIA torture and rendition during the George W. Bush administration, according to administration and Congressional officials.
Kerry was not going rogue -- his call came after an interagency process that decided the release of the report early next week, as Feinstein had been planning, could complicate relationships with foreign countries at a sensitive time and posed an unacceptable risk to U.S. personnel and facilities abroad. Kerry told Feinstein he still supports releasing the report, just not right now.
“What he raised was timing of report release, because a lot is going on in the world -- including parts of the world particularly implicated -- and wanting to make sure foreign policy implications were being appropriately factored into timing,” an administration official told me. "He had a responsibility to do so because this isn’t just an intel issue -- it’s a foreign policy issue."
But those concerns are not new, and Kerry’s 11th-hour effort to secure a delay in the report’s release places Feinstein in a difficult position: She must decide whether to set aside the administration’s concerns and accept the risk, or scuttle the roll-out of the investigation she fought for years to preserve.
Hill staffers and human rights advocates saw the Kerry call as a stunning reversal by an administration that has publicly supported the report’s release for months. For Senate Republicans, who have warned about the potential fallout for more than a year, the administration is belatedly coming around to agree with their position.
“There’s always a lot going on in the world and the timing of the release of a report like this never convenient,” one senior GOP senate staffer said. "They should have thought about that a long time ago and advocated against the release."
For the large community of nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups that have been fighting for the release, the administration’s action is a betrayal, and also a sign that the whole issue has been poorly managed.
“The administration’s reactions to Senator Feinstein have been surprising and suggest that there are competing forces inside the executive branch with no strategic direction,” said Mieke Eoyang, a former intelligence committee staffer who now serves as the Director of the National Security Program at Third Way, a center-left think tank. “In life, if you waited for a good time to come clean, you might never come clean.”
Any delay would be a huge problem for Feinstein for several reasons. First of all, her staff just completed a grueling months-long negotiation with the CIA over what details would make it into the final release. Those negotiations were personally mediated by President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, who flew to San Francisco several times to negotiate directly with Feinstein.
Second, if the release is pushed off past next week, Feinstein will no longer head the committee, and the incoming chairman, Republican Richard Burr, could very well prevent the report from being released at all. That could negate years of work by Feinstein’s investigators and prevent the report’s conclusions, many of which will be disputed vigorously by the CIA, from ever coming to light.
Last, Feinstein is set to deliver a major speech about the report at a Dec. 10 gala event hosted by Human Rights First, which is awarding her and Sen. John McCain the “Beacon Prize” for “their leadership to end the use of torture and other cruel treatment of prisoners by the United States.” As Feinstein wrestles with Kerry’s request, her staff must be furiously rewriting that speech.
President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both said they want to see the release of the 500-page executive summary of the majority staff’s 6,700-page report, which is expected to accuse the CIA of using harsh interrogation techniques not approved by the White House, misleading the White House and Congress on the secret rendition of suspected terrorists, and thwarting the committee’s attempts to investigate.
Feinstein was able to ensure that her release would include information about countries that secretly helped the CIA hide and abuse prisoners, although those countries would not be named directly. She was not able to prevent the redactions of the pseudonyms of CIA personnel implicated in the report.
The State Department’s top intelligence officer, Phillip Goldberg, wrote to Congress last year to warn that such information could harm U.S. relationships and place American personnel and facilities abroad at risk, but at the time, top officials told me that his warning was never cleared at the secretary of state level. This time, the very top echelon of the Obama administration’s national security team is echoing those concerns.
They are also said to be backed up by a new memo sent to Congress from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, detailing the potential risks of releasing the report at this time. That office did not respond to a request for comment.
The State Department prepared talking points in advance of the report’s release that made the case for releasing it, despite the risks.
“America can champion democracy and human rights around the world not because we are perfect, but because we can say that our democratic system enables us to confront and resolve our problems through open and honest debate,” the State Department memo said. "Our Congress issued this report, and the Obama administration strongly supported its declassification, in that spirit."
But now, the administration has placed Feinstein in a lose-lose situation. The State Department has been preparing its embassies abroad for the release for months, but there’s no way to bring the risk down to zero, and if there is violence following the release, the administration has now provided itself political cover -- Feinstein, not so much. But if she caves and shelves the release, she not only forfeits her last major effort as chairman, she risks ensuring that the debate over what the CIA did in those fateful years ends without an important accounting.
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