Months ago Democratic lawmakers asked the White House to lead the process of declassifying the report and are now blaming Obama for ceding that ground to the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
In a letter dated April 7, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked Obama to allow the White House to “take the lead” in determining what would be redacted from a declassified study it planned to publicly release.
“As this report covers a covert action program under the authority of the president and the National Security Council, I respectfully request that the White House take the lead in the declassification process,” the California Democrat told Obama in the letter.
“I very much appreciate your past statements — and those of your administration — in support of declassification of the [committee’s final report] with only redactions as necessary for remaining national security concerns,” she wrote.
Obama, however, decided to give the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence the job of making initial redaction decisions with White House officials reviewing them afterward.
“After receiving the executive summary, findings and conclusions of the [Senate Intelligence Committee report] in April, the CIA and the ODNI submitted the report to the White House with their initial recommended redactions so that it could continue to be so coordinated with other agencies who have equities,” White House National Security Council spokesman Edward Price told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday.
“We concluded that process on Friday, when the report was returned to the committee,” he said.
The redactions have become a bitter point of contention between Senate Democrats and the White House. After an exhaustive investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation practices after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Intelligence Committee Democrats were expected to release their findings this week.
Feinstein (Photo: Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner)When Feinstein received the declassified version of the report from the White House Friday, she immediately raised red flags and complained that they were heavy-handed.
After reviewing the redactions further, Feinstein announced on Tuesday she was delaying the release of the torture report until further notice because the redactions had eliminated or obscured key facts supporting the report’s findings and conclusions.
“Until these redactions are addressed to the committee’s satisfaction, the report will not be made public,” Feinstein said.
She said the White House and the intelligence community have agreed to cooperate and work through the changes she is demanding in “good faith.”
A Senate aide said Democrats on the committee are still unsure exactly who did the redacting and don't know how long it will take to work through the blacked-out material to see whether the report can be salvaged, noting that it will depend on "how smoothly the process goes.
"The White House tasked the CIA with handling the declassification under the DNI's oversight," the aide said.
The White House is not saying exactly who was involved in the redaction process, but declassification decisions of such magnitude usually involve close scrutiny from top officials at the CIA, ODNI and National Security Council.
In such a sensitive matter, the top-level decision-making would likely include CIA Director John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, as well as national security adviser Susan Rice, and the respective general counsel’s offices at the White House and each of the agencies.
The CIA’s and the ODNI’s role in censoring the Senate’s torture report is only exacerbating hostilities between the oversight panel and the nation’s top spy.
Many Democrats have long opposed Obama’s decision to tap Brennan for top roles on his national security team. A 25-year veteran of the CIA, Brennan served as a senior aide to George Tenet, the agency’s chief when the torture took place.
When Obama first tried to appoint Brennan to CIA director, he was forced to withdraw in the face of stiff opposition from Democrats and several Republicans.
Last week Brennan apologized to Feinstein and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, after an inspector general’s report found that CIA officials had violated an agreement with the committee and improperly accessed computers of Senate investigators.
Brennan had originally vigorously denied that the spying had occurred.
Udall on Tuesday pinned the blame for what he deemed as excessive redactions squarely on the White House.
"The CIA should not face its past with a redaction pen, and the White House must not allow it to do so," he said.
Brennan (Photo: Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner)Obama last week rallied to Brennan’s side during a press conference with reporters in which he also acknowledged that the U.S. intelligence community crossed the line in the aftermath of 9/11 and “we tortured some folks.”
“I have full confidence in John Brennan,” Obama said, noting that “some very poor judgment was shown” by the CIA personnel who hacked into Senate files.
“Keep in mind, John Brennan called for that IG report,” Obama added.
Clapper also has plenty of enemies on Capitol Hill. Two members accused him of perjury for denying the scope of a National Security Agency surveillance program last year that was later proved to be more extensive than he said. He later apologized for his “clearly erroneous” testimony.