The Senate Intelligence Committee’s majority report on CIA interrogation efforts contains new information about U.S. cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies that reportedly includes the revelation of still-undisclosed CIA “black site” prisons in foreign countries, where abuses may have occurred. And now the White House must decide whether or not masked references to specific foreign countries and individuals who helped the CIA will be allowed to come out.
Details of some countries’ involvement have already emerged. Reports have identified the past existence of CIA black sites in on the soil of close allies, such as Poland. The CIA also sent at least eight men to Syrian prisons, where some of them were tortured.
The committee submitted a version of its executive summary of its 6,300-page report to the executive branch for declassification that used pseudonyms for both countries and individuals. But the CIA and the Office of the National Director of Intelligence (ODNI) blacked out even the fake names, arguing that any clues could help adversaries identify covert U.S. intelligence agents and embarrass governments that have helped the United States.
Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein is demanding that the White House overrule the intelligence community and restore some of the pseudonyms and fake names back into the report, before she releases it. The dispute could delay the highly anticipated report’s release by weeks.
“Pseudonyms are already used for CIA officers and foreign countries in the report but those pseudonyms were redacted and in some cases the committee feels they shouldn’t have been,” Feinstein’s communications director, Tom Mentzer, told The Daily Beast. This issue is the most contentious in a laundry list of redactions Feinstein has now asked the White House to reverse.
Steven Aftergood, the director of the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said it was unusual for the White House to be as involved in the declassification process as it now finds itself. “In almost every other case the originating agency or agencies that have equities in the information are the ones to declassify it,” he said.
But in this case specifically the White House must get more involved, in part because the actual report was so damning to the CIA, one of the agencies that led the initial review, said Aftergood.
“The point of the report is to put down a marker for future generations,” he said. “We did something wrong here and we must not do it again.”
The intelligence community, on the other hand, maintains that any information that foreign intelligence agencies can get on CIA officers, even if masked, could risk their safety.
“Making public those pseudonyms associated with individual officers—as well as dates, locations and other identifying information related to those officers—dramatically increases the likelihood that they will be exposed and potentially subject to threats or violence,” said a U.S. official familiar with the administration’s redactions. “A pseudonym itself is little protection from exposure when a host of other information about that officer is made public and will be seen by adversaries and foreign intelligence services.”
The CIA and the ODNI are also arguing that disclosure or even confirmation of details involving cooperation by foreign governments, such as hosting black sites, could lead to all sorts of ill effects: harm in those intelligence relationships; domestic trouble for those governments; even danger for U.S. diplomatic personnel abroad.
CIA facilities implicated in the report have allegedly been located in Thailand, Poland, Lithuania, and Romania, sparking public debate and resentment against the U.S. government in those countries. But officials and Senate aides said the report contains information on several more locations.
Diplomats representing those countries, aware of their vulnerability to exposure, have been quietly meeting with administration officials and lawmakers urging them to protect the secrecy of those intelligence relationships. Many foreign governments are still angry about the disclosures of NSA spying by leaker Edward Snowden.
A June 2013 classified letter to senators signed by Philip Goldberg, who at the time served as the State Department’s top intelligence official, warned of risks to American personnel overseas and relationships with foreign governments if proper security precautions were not taken in advance of the release of the report.
In recent days, the White House has taken a new and more hands-on approach to dealing with the declassification dispute between the committee and the CIA. That’s a change from the White House’s role in the process since April, when the White House gave only broad outlines for the redaction process and let the ODNI lead the interagency process that did the first round of actual redactions.
Edward Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the intelligence agencies conducted their own declassification review of the report which was submitted to the White House. A further review led by the White House was completed on Friday, when it was returned to the committee.
Feinstein in April had asked the White House to be more involved in the declassification process at an earlier stage. “We have since begun a constructive dialogue with the committee on the redactions,” Price said.
Another U.S. intelligence officer said that, until last Friday, the White House simply provided general guidance to the intelligence community. “The National Security Council was part of the process, they were clear in what their intent was, which was to declassify as much as possible,” this official said. But this official added the Office of the Director of National Intelligence oversaw the line-by-line process of determining what information would be redacted from the version of the report released to the public.
J. William Leonard, the director between 2002 and 2007 of the Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees the declassification of documents across the executive branch, said the White House should play an active role in declassifying the report.
“From my personal experience in dealing with the CIA over the years, having the White House involved is actually a good thing. I always experienced the CIA would take the most extreme position in any sort of negotiations on declassification,” he said.
Senate Republicans are largely siding with the CIA. Sens. Marco Rubio and James Risch, who voted against declassifying any portion of the report, have expressed concerns about the international fallout after the report is released. Republicans are also concerned that now that the declassification process is firmly in the White House’s hands, the temptation to consider the politics of the issue in addition to the substance will be too tempting to resist.
“You can still identify a country or friend without printing their actual names,” said a senior GOP Senate aide familiar with the redactions. “The potential to make this a politically charged issue makes you question the White House running the release of the information.”
But not all Senate Republicans agree with the members and staff of the GOP side of the intelligence committee, which is set to release its own minority views about Feinstein’s report. That document will argue the practices produced unique intelligence and foiled terrorist plots.
“The minority report will say that certain information was gained. First of all, I reject those on their face. But second of all, even if there was some truth in it, the damage done to the United States of America’s reputation in incalculable,” Sen. John McCain said last week.
“As to the individuals involved, they should be protected because this came from the top level of the government,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham. “And to the people in the Bush administration, I understand being under siege [and] not wanting another 9/11. We all make mistakes. But America is a great place because we air our dirty laundry.”