Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan prepare to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on January 29, 2014.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan prepare to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on January 29, 2014. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Yet Again, CIA is Concealing Information Americans Should See

Only President Obama can break the stalemate between CIA and the Senate over declassifying the 9/11 torture report. By J. William Leonard

Once again, the CIA is concealing information that Americans have a right to know, and once again President Obama should ensure its release. 

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is set to release a landmark report on the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program. But Obama allowed the CIA to oversee redactions, and it predictably went to town with the black marker. According to committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the redactions “eliminate or obscure key facts that support the report’s findings and conclusions.”  

The CIA even redacted information already made public by a 2009 Armed Services Committee Report on detainee abuse within the military. Members of the committee are haggling with the CIA and the White House over the redactions. The President, and only the president, can break the stalemate.

As the official responsible for oversight of the system for classifying national security information during the Bush administration, I frequently did battle with the CIA over declassification. I found its negotiating posture to be consistent: start out with the most ridiculous position and eventually settle for one that is simply outrageous. My 40 years of experience in the world of government secrecy taught me that the CIA rarely if ever acts in good faith when it comes to transparency.

Rather than exploring what information can be responsibly declassified, the CIA depicts the release of information as the slipperiest of slopes that could lead to ill-defined dire consequences at some ill-defined point.

A retiring CIA representative to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, which rules on appeals of classification decisions, told me that he was consistently surprised by the panel’s willingness to accept the CIA’s most extreme arguments for continued classification—arguments that he often did not believe himself.

Even when the information in question is benign, the CIA’s default mode is secrecy. Imagine, then, if the information in question indicts the CIA. That’s the case with the Senate report, which reportedly concludes torture was more widespread, ineffective and brutal than Americans were led to believe, and that the CIA misled the administration and Congress about the extent and nature of the abuse. The CIA has an egregious conflict of interest.

Ultimately, the right to deny information to the public for national security purposes lies not with agencies but with the president himself.  In 1968, the CIA predicted that “the Soviets will not attempt a flight around the moon in December [1968]” but will probably wait until early 1969. As every fifth-grader now knows, this intelligence assessment turned out to be accurate. Four decades later, however, at the CIA’s insistence this prediction was still TOP SECRET simply because it appeared in a November 1968 President’s Daily Brief, a daily compilation of intelligence prepared specifically for the president. It took the personal intervention of President Obama to declassify it in May 2011.

In classifying information, agencies such as the CIA are simply exercising authority delegated to them by the president—authority that originates in the president’s Article II constitutional authority as commander-in-chief and chief executive responsible for foreign relations. President Obama shouldn’t shirk his personal responsibility to ensure that Senate’s report on torture is declassified as much as national security permits.

When declassifying the report, Obama need not rely on the advice of the CIA. The Public Interest Declassification Board is specifically empowered to make recommendations on disagreements between co-equal branches of government regarding declassification. It’s well-positioned to provide informed, unbiased, and apolitical recommendations.

If Obama does not live up to his responsibility and allows CIA objections to prevail, the Senate has the power to unilaterally disclose any part of the torture report it deems appropriate. The 1974 resolution establishing the Senate Intelligence Committee institutes the basic rule that the committee “may disclose publicly any information in its possession after the committee determines that the public interest would be served by such disclosure” and includes provisions requiring action by the full Senate should the president object. This “nuclear option” can be avoided if the president ensures that the report is declassified appropriately. Classification is supposed to be a critical national security tool, not a trump card used at an agency’s whim to avoid accountability.

Obama was elected president opposing the use of torture and signed an executive order prohibiting it. But now he has a choice: either perpetuate a cover-up that makes a return to “the dark side” more likely or enable Americans to see the ugly truth about torture so that we as a nation continue to reject it.

J. William Leonard is the COO for the National Endowment for Democracy. He was director of the Information Security Oversight Office from 2002-2008 and prior to that served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for security and information operations) in the Clinton and Bush administrations.