After years of inquiry, $40m in expenses and an unprecedented clash with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Senate intelligence committee voted on Thursday to declassify portions of a study into the agency's use of torture on detainees suspected of being involved in terrorism.
The landmark 11-3 vote now places the Obama administration back at the center of an inherited controversy that it has sought for over five years to escape.
That controversy has immediate implications for the military tribunals of the 9/11 defendants at Guantánamo Bay, several of whom were subjected to the abuse.
Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California, a public champion of the investigation, called its findings "shocking" and the CIA's behavior "in stark contrast to our values as a nation".
"This nation admits its errors, as painful as they may be," Feinstein said in a short statement following the vote, which took place in a secret session.
Would you like to receive our breaking news? - “Like us on Facebook” The committee voted to authorize release of the executive summary, findings, conclusions and dissenting views of a report that accuses the CIA of conducting an abusive regimen of interrogations, extralegal detentions and so-called "renditions" of suspected terrorists to partner countries, and then misleading the Bush administration and Congress about its utility.
But the CIA considers the Senate study misleading and factually inaccurate – and it has recently been in a public fight with its overseers featuring accusations of criminal misconduct and even constitutional usurpation.
And while the White House recommitted itself on Thursday to a prompt public release of portions of the report, it announced that the CIA will play the lead role in reviewing for publication a report that calls Langley lawless and deceitful.
“The CIA, in consultation with other agencies, will conduct the declassification review,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
“The president has been clear that he wants this process completed as expeditiously as possible, consistent with national security, and that’s what we will do.”
Feinstein pointedly noted after the vote that how much of what the administration makes public “in itself will indicate where we are on this.” She hoped for a partial declassification within 30 days, and said she would seek a fuller declassification of the 6,200-page document later – a move that could give the committee leverage over the scope of how much information the administration seeks to withhold from the executive summary release.
The committee study covered 100 detainees who were either in CIA custody or sent by the US to other countries for interrogation, a far larger figure than previously known.
Alberto Mora, the former Navy general counsel who fought with the Bush administration over torture, said he considered the Senate vote to be a vindication.
“I think we’re going to have an authoritative, factual accounting of what actually happened with interrogations,” Mora said.
The Obama administration, after a Justice Department inquiry that ended in 2012, declined to prosecute anyone at the CIA for involvement in waterboarding, which gives those subjected to it the feeling that they are drowning, and other brutal interrogation methods. That move caused severe disillusionment among human rights groups.
But the Senate committee's action has rekindled at least some advocates' hopes for greater transparency about one of the darker episodes of the post-9/11 era, as well as an official recognition of torture's ineffectiveness.
And while the Senate study may not reopen the question of legal accountability for the CIA, it has direct implications for the military tribunal at Guantánamo Bay for the accused 9/11 conspirators.
On Wednesday, defense lawyers for one of those men, Ammar al-Baluchi, said they filed a now-sealed motion for the Senate torture report to be entered as evidence in his case.
On 14 April, the tribunal will consider whether Baluchi’s co-defendant, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, is competent to stand trial. Bin al-Shibh was subjected to the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” that are detailed in the Senate report.
“Whether Mr Baluchi was tortured goes to the heart of the defense and prosecution cases. It’s relevant to what evidence can be admitted against him, it’s relevant to how he’s treated before the trial and it’s relevant to what sentence he should receive, if any,” said James Connell, one of the Defense Department attorneys assigned to Baluchi.
Two of the perceived swing voters on the Senate committee – independent Angus King and Republican Susan Collins, both of Maine – said that the techniques used on al-Baluchi and others “constituted torture”, a rebuke to a decade-long effort by the CIA and its allies to recast the interrogations as something less brutal.
“Torture is wrong, and we must make sure that the misconduct and the grave errors made in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program never happen again,” the senators said in a Wednesday statement announcing they would vote for partial declassification, a move that apparently cleared the path to Thursday’s outcome.
But in comments echoed by several committee members, particularly Republicans, King and Collins faulted the people who produced the report for eschewing interviews with CIA officials and associated personnel and excluding GOP committee staff.
The committee's senior Republican, Saxby Chambliss, said he thought the inquiry was "a waste of time" and redundant with a years-old Senate armed services committee investigation, although that inquiry did not examine the CIA.
But Chambliss said he voted for the partial release.
"We need to get this behind us," Chambliss said.
The vote might not have happened this month had Feinstein not taken to the Senate floor in March to accuse the CIA of attempting to subvert the torture investigation by withholding critical information and even intruding on a Senate computer network set up by the agency to facilitate document sharing.
“I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States constitution, including the speech and debate clause,” Feinstein said on 11 March.
The CIA maintains that it did not improperly access that network, although neither party is releasing the terms of the agreement between the agency and the committee about network access. It has counter-charged that committee staff may have committed a crime by removing a classified document from a secured facility, an act that Feinstein defended in her speech.
The agency’s inspector general is reviewing the overlapping accusations, as is the Senate sergeant-at-arms. While the CIA referred the document removal incident to the Justice Department for a possible criminal inquiry, the department has not commented regarding its plans.
Human rights advocates praised the committee’s vote for partial declassification as a milestone in a years-long debate over torture.
“This vote is a really important step forward in the fight to build a durable consensus against torture in the United States. It’s going to definitively show the pro-torture narratives out there were false,” said Raha Wala of Human Rights First.
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd issued a statement about the vote for partial declassification:
Steve Kleinman, a air force reserve colonel and former interrogator, said he hoped one outcome of the pending declassification would be to eliminate the popular perception that interrogations must involve torture to be effective.
“When anyone tortures, that’s not interrogation, that’s torture. We can’t conflate the two,” Kleinman said.
Mora, the former navy general counsel, said the partial release of the report did not remove the legal impediments to prosecuting the architects and practitioners of torture.
But, Mora said, it would help the United States “return to the principle in the future that anyone who commits this crime, regardless of rank, will be called to account and perhaps criminally prosecuted”.
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