WASHINGTON — Senate Intelligence Committee members protested Tuesday over the Obama administration’s censorship of a report on the CIA’s use of “brutal” interrogation methods, charging that the deletions hid key facts and blacked out information that was made public years ago.
The senators raised their objections to the redactions in emailed statements sent within minutes of each other, indicating a coordinated effort to drive home their anger and further highlighted the serious frictions between the Democratic administration and Democrat-run panel that oversees the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies.
Relations between the committee and the CIA also have soured over the agency’s admission last week that it had broken into a computer database that by agreement was supposed to have been accessed only by the panel staffers who compiled the report.
The latest uproar came four days after the completion of a declassification process in which the CIA and then the White House blacked out details from the nearly 500-page executive summary _ the only part of the 6,300-page report that will be released _ what they considered as sensitive national security information.
In their emailed statements, four of the committee members, including the chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., charged that the deletions were excessive and hid critical information dug up by the five-year, $40 million probe of the interrogation methods employed by the CIA under the former George W. Bush administration.
“After further review of the redacted version of the executive summary, I have concluded the redactions eliminate or obscure key facts that support the report’s findings and conclusions,” said Feinstein. “Until these redactions are addressed to the committee’s satisfaction, the report will not be made public.
“I am sending a letter today to the president laying out a series of changes to the redactions that we believe are necessary prior to public release,” she continued. “The White House and the intelligence community have committed to working through these changes in good faith.”
The White House had no immediate comment.
The White House and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have defended the blackouts, contending that more than 85 percent of the executive summary was left untouched and that half the deletions were made to footnotes.
The statements from Feinstein and Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Mark Udall of Utah and Angus King, an independent from Maine, indicated that the dispute goes beyond redactions of pseudonyms of covert CIA officers and foreign countries that a Feinstein spokesman said Tuesday were in contention.
The redactions “are totally unacceptable. Classification should be used to protect sources and methods or the disclosure of information which could compromise national security, not to avoid disclosure of improper acts or embarrassing information,” said Levin.
Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that he’d found “multiple instances” where blackouts were made to information that had been publicly disclosed in a report on detainee abuses that his panel made public in 2009.
“The White House needs to take hold of this process and ensure that all information that should be declassified is declassified,” said Levin, who is an ex-officio member of the Intelligence Committee.
King, who caucuses with the Senate’s majority Democrats, said: “The American public should be given the opportunity to read the report and reach their own conclusions about the conduct of the program. Getting to that point requires that we ensure the administration’s proposed redactions do not obscure the facts.”
Udall, an outspoken critic of the CIA’s interrogation program, dismissed Clapper’s defense of the deletions.
“While Director Clapper may be technically correct that the document has been 85 percent declassified, it is also true that strategically placed redactions can make a narrative incomprehensible and can certainly make it more difficult to understand the basis for the findings and conclusions reached in the report,” he said.
“The CIA should not face its past with a redaction pen, and the White House must not allow it to do so,” said Udall, who called the CIA program “brutal and ineffective.”
His comments reflected the report’s main conclusion, that the agency’s use of simulated drowning known as waterboarding, wall-slamming and other harsh interrogation techniques on suspect terrorists held in secret overseas prisons produced little valuable intelligence.
Other conclusions, obtained by McClatchy in April, said that the agency misled the Bush administration, Congress and the public about the efficacy of the program and called into question the legal justifications for the techniques, which Obama, some lawmakers and human rights experts have denounced as torture.
The CIA and former Bush administration officials say that valuable intelligence was gained from the program and dispute that the techniques constituted torture.