The Struggle For Accountability On Torture

Redacted Document

A new story in the Huffington Post confirms what I’ve been fearing for a while now: that the Obama White House, in particular chief of staff Denis McDonough, is now pulling out all the stops to protect the CIA as far as humanly possible from any accountability over its torture program. If you want to know why the report has been stymied, and why something that was completed two years ago cannot even get the executive summary in front of the American people, the answer, I’m afraid, is the president.

You’d think his chief-of-staff would have better things to do right now than plead with Senators to protect and defend John Brennan, the CIA director who has put up a ferocious fight to avoid any accountability. But no:

During the last weeks of July, the intelligence community was bracing itself for the release of the Senate investigation’s executive summary, which is expected to be damning in its findings against the CIA. The report was due to be returned to the Senate panel after undergoing an extensive declassification review, and its public release seemed imminent.

Over the span of just a few days, McDonough, who makes infrequent trips down Pennsylvania Avenue, was a regular fixture, according to people with knowledge of his visits. Sources said he pleaded with key Senate figures not to go after CIA Director John Brennan in the expected furor that would follow the release of the report’s 500-page executive summary.

Weird, huh? What is at the heart of this Brennan-McDonough alliance? And then this staggering detail:

According to sources familiar with the CIA inspector general report that details the alleged abuses by agency officials, CIA agents impersonated Senate staffers in order to gain access to Senate communications and drafts of the Intelligence Committee investigation. These sources requested anonymity because the details of the agency’s inspector general report remain classified. “If people knew the details of what they actually did to hack into the Senate computers to go search for the torture document, jaws would drop. It’s straight out of a movie,” said one Senate source familiar with the document.

All of this is out of a really bad movie: CIA goons torturing prisoners with abandon, destroying evidence of war crimes, hacking into the Senate Committee’s computers, impersonating Senate staffers and on and on.

What really seems to have set off the alarm bells is what’s called the Panetta Report, an internal CIA review of its own torture program that somehow (almost certainly accidentally) got included in the document dump given to the Committee. That report is, by all accounts, damning about the torture program, especially its vaunted “effectiveness.” And you can see why Brennan panicked. How will the CIA attack the Senate report if its own report had come to the exact same conclusion? That’s what set off this drama – because Brennan knew at that point that the CIA was busted. Since then he and McDonough have done all they can to bury the truth, even as they are “debating” whether to allow a loophole for torture if conducted overseas.

What’s also disturbing is the weakness of the Democrats, with a few exceptions (thank God for Wyden and Udall). Feinstein seems to have retreated to her usual supine role, and there’s a sense that the political climate – with ISIS hysteria at epic levels – makes this kind of accountability politically toxic. You get a flavor of how the CIA will play this from this quote in the HuffPo piece:

“At a time when ISIS is on the march and beheading American journalists, some Democrats apparently think now is not the time to be advocating going soft on terrorists. The speculation I hear is that the Senate Democrats will wait until the elections are safely over,” said Robert Grenier, a veteran CIA officer who was the top counterterrorism official from 2004 to 2006.

No one is advocating “going soft” on terrorists. We’re advocating the rule of law and core adherence to the Geneva Conventions and a thorough review of war crimes under the last administration. Those are not weaknesses in a democracy’s fight against Jihadist terror. They are strengths. And they are not negotiable.

What I worry about is if the Republicans win the Senate next month, they could bury the report for good. I simply have to hope – remember that? – that the president means what he has always said, and that massive evidence of war crimes is not buried, even if no one in the CIA or the Bush administration will ever be held accountable for anything.

Release the report. And if it is so damning that Brennan has to go, that’s the price of democratic accountability. No one is indispensable. And no one should be somehow claiming in a democracy that they are.

(Image: A heavily redacted document from the CIA released in 2008)