National Security

Sen. Feinstein to seek law to bar torture by CIA

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 9, 2014, as she arrives to release a report on the CIA's harsh interrogation techniques at secret overseas facilities after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 9, 2014, as she arrives to release a report on the CIA's harsh interrogation techniques at secret overseas facilities after the 9/11 terror attacks. AP

The CIA could hold prisoners only on a short-term basis and would be restricted to using U.S. Army interrogation methods under legislation that former Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein says she’ll sponsor to ensure that detainees are never again tortured.

Feinstein, D-Calif., outlined a series of recommendations for legislative and administrative reforms in a letter that she wrote last week to President Barack Obama seeking his support.

“These recommendations are intended to make sure that the United States never again engages in actions that you have acknowledged were torture,” Feinstein wrote to Obama in the letter, a copy of which was released by her office Monday.

Her proposals stem from a four-year, $40 million investigation into the CIA’s use of simulated drowning, known as waterboarding, and other brutal interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists who were abducted or captured and held in secret overseas prisons under the Bush administration between 2002 and 2007.

The declassified executive summary of the report, written by Democratic committee staffers, found that the methods produced no significant intelligence that couldn’t have been obtained by other means. It also said that the CIA misled the Bush administration, Congress and the American people about the effectiveness of its once top-secret interrogation program.

“I believe that several of the committee’s findings should prompt additional oversight and better sharing of information for all covert action and significant intelligence collection programs,” Feinstein wrote to Obama.

Republicans, who take control of both houses of Congress this week, and former CIA and Bush administration officials disputed the report’s findings. The CIA also rejected the key conclusions, but it agreed with findings outlining serious problems in the way the interrogation program was managed.

Ned Price, a National Security Council spokesman, said that the White House is considering Feinstein’s recommendations. “We are reviewing Sen. Feinstein’s specific recommendations,” he said. “As a general matter, however, we share the senator’s goal of ensuring the techniques that led to those recommendations are never employed again.”

The CIA declined to comment directly on Feinstein’s letter.

Instead, CIA spokesman Dean Boyd noted that the agency has been implementing reforms that it developed internally last year in response to concerns raised in the Senate committee report. The reforms included better management of sensitive programs and improvements in the ways their effectiveness is assessed, he said.

Feinstein said that she planned to introduce in the new Congress legislation that would “close all torture loopholes” by codifying in law a provision of a Jan. 22, 2009, executive order signed by Obama that bars the CIA from holding detainees “beyond a short-term, transitory basis.”

Her legislation also would set in law an executive order provision restricting the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies to using interrogation methods approved in the Army Field Manual, she said. The manual was designed to ensure U.S. Army compliance with the international laws of war.

Feinstein said that her proposed legislation would require the U.S. government to inform the International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors compliance with the international laws of war, about new detainees and to give the organization access to them “as soon as is practical.”

Obama’s executive order must be enshrined in law to ensure that it can’t be reversed by a future president, said Raha Wala, senior counsel for defense and intelligence with Human Rights First.

“An executive order can be overturned by a future administration, a future president,” said Wala, who praised Feinstein’s recommendations as “an important step forward.”

Feinstein also called for a series of administrative reforms that included improved White House oversight and evaluation of covert intelligence programs.

All principal National Security Council members would have to be informed “of all significant covert action undertakings and have access to all relevant information necessary to evaluate these programs,” she wrote, adding that such information also should be made available to senior U.S. diplomats and Justice Department attorneys.

Those recommendations stem from Senate committee findings that the CIA “impeded effective White House oversight” of the interrogation program by providing the Bush administration with “extensive amounts of inaccurate and incomplete information.”

The committee also found that former Secretary of State Colin Powell was deliberately kept in the dark about the program out of concerns that he’d “blow his stack” if he were briefed on its details.

In other administrative reforms, Feinstein proposed that the CIA chief, in consultation with the director of national intelligence, designate a specific agency officer responsible and accountable for every covert CIA operation, and that all intelligence agencies have in place “an adequate process” for selecting qualified personnel for covert and sensitive programs.

She called for strengthening the CIA’s system for reviewing and addressing management problems, leadership failures and alleged wrongdoing by agency personnel. The attorney general and the director of national intelligence should create an interagency center on best interrogation practices and issue a directive requiring all “national security interrogations” to be recorded on video, she said.

Finally, Feinstein endorsed a series of internal reforms that the CIA said it was implementing in response to the committee’s findings.

Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel for Human Rights Watch, said that Feinstein’s proposals were important as they’d ensure that “one standard applies across the board for interrogations.”

She added in an email, however, that the recommendations are “not a substitute” for holding CIA and former Bush administration officials accountable for detainee abuses.

James Connell, an attorney for Ammar al Baluchi, who is awaiting trial at Guantanamo Bay for allegedly conspiring in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, agreed.

“Codifying the current policy against torture into law is a good idea, but new laws will not be much help if no agency is willing to prosecute torturers,” he wrote in an email.

Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald contributed to this report.

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