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Top Intelligence Appropriator Blasts CIA, Wants Torture Report Released

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

CIA Director John O. Brennan is facing new pressure from the Senate Democrat in charge of the agency’s secret budget.  

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who doubles as the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, sent a lengthy missive Thursday to Brennan backing concerns raised by Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and calling for declassification of a torture report prepared by the Intelligence panel.  

Departing the Capitol just before a trip to Ukraine Thursday afternoon, Durbin was asked if he might use his power of the purse to try to push the issue forward.  

“I won’t rule that out,” Durbin told CQ Roll Call.  

The text of the letter to Brennan appears below:  

Dear Director Brennan:

I write to express my grave concerns about the CIA’s actions with respect to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.

As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Constitution Subcommittee, I take very seriously the responsibility of all federal officials to respect the U.S. Constitution’s Separation of Powers. I also serve as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, which appropriates funds for the CIA and other intelligence agencies. In this capacity, I have gained a great appreciation for the need to protect the integrity of Congressional oversight of the Intelligence Community.

I have great respect for Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Chairman of SSCI, so I listened carefully to her lengthy floor statement earlier this week detailing her concerns about the CIA’s interference in SSCI’s oversight work. I have also reviewed your January 27th unclassified letter, responding to an earlier letter from Chairman Feinstein.

The facts as presented in Chairman Feinstein’s floor statement and your letter are deeply troubling. Accepting your version of events, it appears that the CIA conducted an unauthorized search of a computer network used by SSCI staff to determine whether SSCI staff possessed certain sensitive CIA documents. You state that the documents in question are privileged, deliberative, and pre-decisional. However, I understand that the Senate Legal Counsel has concluded that this type of privilege is not recognized by the Legislative Branch. I believe that recognition of such a privilege would be a severe blow to any congressional oversight efforts of the Executive Branch, because any information, analysis, or operational plans could simply be labeled as deliberative or pre-decisional and withheld from the congressional oversight committees. This would have profound impacts on the intelligence community’s obligation under the National Security Act of 1947 to keep Congress “fully and currently informed” on intelligence activities, and also the fundamental system of checks and balances established by the Constitution.

You acknowledge that the CIA does not know how SSCI staff obtained these documents, and Chairman Feinstein maintains that the CIA provided the documents to SSCI staff. Given the separation of powers interests at stake, if the CIA had a question about these documents, you should have at the very least asked Chairman Feinstein and her staff for an explanation before taking the highly questionable and possibly unconstitutional step of searching a computer network used by the Legislative Branch.

As a former member of SSCI, I am also troubled by allegations from CIA staff that SSCI staff has acted inappropriately, and I take seriously Chairman Feinstein’s concern that this is a potential effort to intimidate SSCI staff.

It is important not to lose sight of the underlying issue – the un-American and illegal torture of detainees held by our government. It was 10 years ago that I authored the first legislation to make it clear that the cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of detainees is illegal under U.S. law in all circumstances. My legislation was a response to the previous Administration’s position that it was legal to use abusive interrogation techniques on detainees.

I was very proud when, on only his third day in office, President Obama issued Executive Order 13491 ending the use of abusive interrogation techniques. Prior to your confirmation, we discussed this issue and you assured me that you would support the Administration’s policy.

As you know, the SSCI Study of the CIA Detention and Interrogation Program began in the aftermath of the CIA’s inappropriate destruction of detainee interrogation videotapes. Then-CIA Director Hayden suggested that SSCI staff review CIA operational cables about the CIA Detention and Interrogation Program in lieu of the destroyed tapes. As Chairman Feinstein has explained, the SSCI Study was authorized on an overwhelming bipartisan vote after SSCI found that the cables detailed detention conditions and interrogations that were far worse than what the CIA had previously described to SSCI.

Approximately one year ago, I received a classified briefing on the SSCI Study. While I cannot recount the details of the briefing in this letter, the SSCI Study raises extremely troubling issues about not only CIA activities, but also the Agency’s obligation to cooperate fully and accurately with congressional oversight activities. The conclusions of the SSCI Study, along with my understanding of the recent events relating to the documents in dispute, indicate to me that the CIA is making it very difficult for Congress to fully carry out its oversight responsibilities. I simply cannot understand any circumstances that would legitimately allow the Executive Branch to withhold any information or documents from an official Senate investigation of such an important matter.

After I was briefed on the SSCI Study, I spoke with you, the President, and then-Secretary of Defense Panetta to urge each of you to be briefed on its findings and to support its declassification. In my view, it is critically important to declassify the SSCI Study so that we can learn from, and hopefully not repeat, the mistakes of our past. I cannot say it better than Senator John McCain, an American hero who knows more about this issue than any other member of Congress, and who has urged the Administration to “take whatever steps necessary to finalize and declassify this report, so that all Americans can see the record for themselves, which I believe will finally close this painful chapter for our country.”

In light of the important constitutional principles at stake, I urge you to directly address the serious separation of powers issues that have been raised. I also again urge you to accelerate declassification to the greatest extent possible of the SSCI Study of the CIA Detention and Interrogation Program.

Thank you for time and consideration. I look forward to your prompt response.


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